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Operation Desert Norms

Posted: 03/22/2012 3:56 pm

Along with the lunch served on Tuesday at the "Morality and Politics" panel at Garrett Hall, New York Times columnist David Brooks offered some preliminary, if bittersweet, intellectual hors d'oeuvres. "I've spoken at this University before, and I know that none of you came to hear me," he said. "You came to hear yourselves." Brooks accurately identified the trend of audiences releasing personal statements rather than asking questions at such events, a tradition of outspokenness not surprising to find at the institution founded by Jefferson. While in classrooms at UVA the mantra of "There is no such thing as a stupid question," is up for debate, the idea of free expression isn't -- an idea so tired and rightfully taken for granted that coming across the endangered species of censors should wake us up.

Enter Arizona, a state known for its strict immigration laws and its heat, which is now looking to deport speech or else start firing teachers. Senate Bill 1467 would apply the Federal Communications Commission's standards of obscenity, indecency and profanity to any "person who provides classroom instruction in a public school..." The punishments include a one week suspension for a first-time offense, a two week suspension for the second and a firing for the third. The wording of the bill alarms some, who point out there is no boundary defined. The censorship rules would seem to apply wherever teachers are, meaning they now face the clear and present danger of administrations shouting, "fired."

Some have said this bill could exclude literary works with profanity from the classroom, reigniting all the debates about banning books which were thought to have been cleared with the court ruling "United States v. One Book Called Ulysses," which found works with artistic merit are not obscene. Others have said this bill would redact lectures on sexuality.

But then Arizona has always been looking the other way when it comes to education reform. Its legislature passed a 2010 bill outlawing classes which endorse overthrowing the U.S. government, promote race or class resentment or "[a]dvocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." And so universities in Arizona exile minority studies programs while blacklisting works of minority writers. One school even removed The Tempest by Shakespeare, who has done more to make individuals out of pupils than any teacher or legislator.

Meanwhile, one small acronymic step from being the space organization, NASPA released a study on cheating last week taken from the state's flagship school. The report surveyed 2,000 students along with 600 teachers at the University of Arizona, finding two-thirds of students were honest about their cheating, confessing it. Yet instead of fixing this, and all the while trimming budgets in education, Arizona lawmakers decided to focus on the manufactured issue of obscenity.

It is 2012 and censorship in public schools is not science fiction. Let them cut back on funding, fine. Take away the cheaters which swarm and infest, if you so please, for only politicians stand in your way. But remove books, or start censoring academic expression, and you're going against history: Jefferson, Bradbury, Twain, Heine, Joyce and here comes everybody.

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