graphic of Free Speech in State Legislatures

Arizona legislators seek to bar teachers from discussing political, ideological issues – December 2018

Phoenix, AZ

In December 2018, two Republican Arizona state lawmakers introduced separate bills that would bar teachers from engaging in political or ideological discussions with their students. Doing so, in defiance of the proposed rules,  would result in penalties for teachers, including possible termination.

Key Players

Mark Finchem is a member of the Arizona House of Representatives from Oro Valley, just north of Tucson. He was first elected in 2014, and most recently won reelection in November 2018.

Kelly Townsend is a member of the Arizona House of Representatives from Mesa. She was elected in 2012, re-elected most recently in November 2018, and previously served as majority whip.

Further Details

The “Red for Ed” is a teacher protest movement that gained traction in Arizona before spreading across the country in 2018, leading to a series of walkouts — and subsequent school closures — amid calls for greater public education funding and salary raises for teachers. Protestors wear red, some suggest, because it fosters a sense of solidarity and symbolizes the fact that many schools, due to reduced funding, are in financial crisis, or “in the red.”

On December 14, 2018, Finchem introduced House Bill (HB) 2002, which would require the Arizona Board of Education to devise an ethics code for educators that would include provisions forbidding the spread of “political, ideological or religious” messages in both public and charter schools; it would also bar teachers from introducing any “controversial” discussions unrelated to the official curriculum. Additionally, Finchem’s bill would prevent teachers from singling out a racial group of students as “responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students.”

If the bill passes, teachers who violate the restrictions could risk losing their jobs, according to The Hill. Only certified instructors would be affected by the new guidelines, according to The Arizona Republic.

A week later, Townsend introduced HB 2015, a similar bill intended to prevent teachers from voicing political and religious beliefs in the classroom. While Townsend’s bill is less specific than Finchem’s, it prohibits teachers from using school time and resources to discuss political and religious ideas unrelated to the curriculum. Teachers who violate this guideline could face fines up to $5,000.

FInchem said his bill was a response to constituent concerns and parent “outrage” about politics pervading the classroom, according to The Arizona Republic. However, many educators believe the bills are a response to the “Red for Ed” movement, to which, as  New York magazine reports, both Finchem and Townsend are publicly opposed. “Red for Ed” supporters believe such bills are an attempt to punish teachers who participate in any future protests or walkouts, which Finchem called a show of “bad faith.”

But, as New York’s Sarah Jones pointed out in an article, religious advocacy in public classrooms is already unconstitutional, and Arizona law largely prohibits political advocacy in public schools.

“Finchem and Townsend’s bills are unnecessary and they’re written so sweepingly that they may actually violate the First Amendment,” Jones wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona argues that the bills could have chilling effects on Free Speech and could stifle Socratic teaching methods, according to New York. The bill could also harm teacher unions by making walkouts and other demonstrations more difficult, the magazine reported.

Finchem’s and Townsend’s bills await further action in the Arizona House of Representatives.

External References

GOP state lawmaker introduces bill that would block teachers from discussing ‘controversial’ issues, The Hill

Arizona lawmaker would fire teachers who discuss politics, ‘controversial issues’ in class, Arizona Daily Star

Arizona teachers who talk politics will be fired if new bill passes, Arizona Republic

Arizona Lawmakers Are Looking to Stifle Teachers’ Political Speech, New York Magazine

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded January28, 2019