Bill would prohibit teachers from opining

PHOENIX - For JoAnne Morales, an instructor at Eastern Arizona College, offering opinions in class is fundamental to teaching.

"If we are not allowed to listen to each others' opinions, students with opposing viewpoints can't lay remarks on the table," said Morales, chairwoman of the college's social studies department.

A bill moving at the Arizona State Legislature would prevent teachers at all levels from expressing political opinions or advocating for one side of any controversial social, cultural or political issue.

Public grade school and high school teachers who violate the provisions of SB 1542, sponsored by Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, would face $500 fines and suspension or revocation of teaching certifications. Public university and community college instructors would face $500 fines and possible suspension or termination.

David Schlosberg, professor and political science department chairman at Northern Arizona University, said the bill would make it impossible to teach a number of subjects and to get students to think critically about their own opinions.

"The problem is that anything a professor says can be interpreted as an opinion," Schlosberg said. "Teachers could be accused and fined for trying to generate critical discussion."

SB 1542, which is headed to the full Senate for consideration, is a strike-everything bill that revives earlier legislation that failed in committee. Originally introduced as SB 1612, it was voted down 5-3 in the Senate Education K-12 Committee. The reintroduced version passed the Senate Government Committee 4-3 on a party-line vote.

In addition to its restrictions on political opinions, the bill would prohibit instructors from supporting activities that hamper the access of military recruiters on campus.

Verschoor didn't return two telephone messages left with his office.

Sen. Jake Flake, R-Snowflake, said he voted for SB 1542 in the Senate Government Committee because students, even those in college, are impressionable.

"I don't think a teacher's job is to try and influence kids towards political opinions or a particular candidate," Flake said. "That is the parents' responsibility."

Flake acknowledged that during political sciences classes teachers often have to play the devil's advocate.

"Sometimes in political science there is role play involved that could be construed as pushing a candidate or a philosophy," Flake said, noting that he had not considered the impact of the bill at the university level as much as at the elementary, middle and high school level.

School boards and universities already adopt policies that dictate parameters around the political speech of teachers to make sure they don't use their role improperly, said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association. He said he finds Verschoor's bill "very chilling."

"It is overreaching, very likely unconstitutional and not well-defined," Wright said. "It limits the ability of teachers to speak about the political process."

Bill Lovejoy, the vice chancellor of administration for Mohave Community College, said the measure would suppress open discussion.

"The bill tends to reduce academic freedom to let students discuss what is going on in the real world," Lovejoy said. "Institutions such as Arizona State University or community colleges should be a forum for open discussion of issues."

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said politicians behind the bill are overstepping their bounds.

"We see this bill as a new form of censorship," Meetze said. "Politicians are using their power to dictate what can and can't be discussed in the classroom. The classroom is a place where students should exchange ideas and discuss controversial issues."

Posted in Spot News February 26th, 2007 by Cronkite News Service |