PHOENIX – A teacher's role may be to expand a student's vocabulary, but one Arizona lawmaker wants to make sure that doesn't include four-letter words.
A state legislator has introduced a bill that would punish public school teachers if they use words that violate the obscenity and profanity guidelines set forth by the Federal Communications Commission.
State Sen. Lori Klein introduced the measure because a parent in her district complained about a high school teacher using foul language.
The words were "totally inappropriate," and teachers that don't keep their language clean aren't setting a good example for students, she said.
"You're there to be educated," Klein said. "You're not there to talk smack."
Critics say the bill is unnecessary and any discipline needed should be handled by schools and districts, not the Legislature.
Klein, a Republican from Anthem, made national headlines last fall when she pointed her gun at a reporter while demonstrating the weapon's laser sight during an interview.
Klein's proposal may be constitutional, but "not necessarily wise," said James Weinstein, a Constitutional Law professor at Arizona State University
Weinstein said the FCC has made exceptions for offensive language based on context, and that could make things complicated.
"FCC standards aren't exactly black and white," said Anjali Abraham, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization has some concerns about the bill, Abraham said.
A spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislators said the organization is not aware of any other state with a law similar to the Arizona proposal.
If the bill becomes law, a teacher whose speech or conduct violates FCC regulations would receive a warning, and after three incidents, the teacher would face a week of suspension without pay. A teacher would be fired after the fifth offense.
The proposal applies to K-12 teachers, and is limited to speech in a classroom setting.
Klein told the Senate committee Wednesday that she wished the issue could be left to school boards, but she didn't feel they were protecting "young, impressionable kids" from offensive language.
Floyd Brown, the parent in Anthem who complained to Klein, knows better than most what kind of impression words can make.
Brown is a longtime Republican strategist who produced the infamous "Willie Horton" ad during the 1998 presidential campaign, which tied Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to the release of a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.
Brown is also the founding chairman of Citizens United, the group whose lawsuit led to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that barred the government from limiting corporation and labor union spending for political purposes.
Last year, Brown's daughter Olivia came home from high school upset that a teacher was using the F-word in class. Brown brought the issue to school administrators, but they didn't take him seriously, he said.
Brown said he pulled his daughter, then a sophomore, out of the school and she's now being homeschooled.
"I'm not going to subject my daughter to that kind of environment," Brown said
Brown said he took his complaint to Klein because he lives in her district.
A representative for the school district said the school received no complaints about staff using inappropriate language, which would violate the district's professional conduct policy.
Most districts adopt professional conduct policies barring the use of profane language or actions by employees while at work, said Tracey Benson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, which creates model policies for districts.
That policy should remain in the hands of school boards, superintendents and principals, said state Sen. David Schapira, a Tempe Democrat.
The state doesn't need to change the law just because there was one incident that "may not have been handled the right way," he said.
"I don't remember this being a big problem when I taught high school," Schapira said.
A Senate committee advanced the measure Wednesday morning by a vote of 5-2 along party lines, with Republicans in favor. The bill must pass through another committee before it goes before the full Senate.
Sen. Frank Antenori, a Republican from Tucson, voted in favor of the bill and cited a recent report he had read that detailed a pattern of abusive language being used by teachers and other staffers in some Tucson schools. Antenori said some of the comments were "pretty darn shocking" and he couldn't believe the employees didn't lose their jobs.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who voted against the bill, said administrators and school boards should be the ones to punish educators, not the Legislature.
"We're really holding a big hammer over teachers," Gallardo said.
Kelly Parrish, an English teacher at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, said she always keeps her conduct professional in the classroom, but she feels the restrictions could cause trouble when the curriculum is not "G-rated," she said. Words that the FCC would not allow on television or radio can come up while discussing literature, such as racial slurs in "To Kill a Mockingbird," she said.
"We're supposed to be preparing them for the next level," Parrish said. "If we just put them in a bubble and protect them, I don't think we're doing a good job at making them ready for real-life situations by sugar-coating everything."