Arizona Lawmakers Are Looking to Stifle Teachers’ Political Speech

Educator Kelley Fisher leads Arizona teachers through downtown Phoenix on their way to the State Capitol during a Red for Ed rally in April 2018. Photo: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Less than a year after a statewide teacher walkout, Arizona legislators have filed two bills aimed at limiting the workplace speech rights of public educators. House Bills 2002 and 2015, proposed last month by Republican representatives Mark Finchem and Kelly Townsend, respectively, would allow the state to fire teachers who discuss politics, religion, or racial issues in classroom settings. Finchem’s bill appears especially strict. As reported by the Arizona Republic, it seeks to prohibit teachers from “segregating students ‘according to race’ or blaming one race of students ‘as being responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students.’” That provision invokes the state’s attempted ban on ethnic studies curriculum in public schools; in 2017, a federal judge ruled that the ban’s enactment reflected “racial animus” and thus violated the constitutional rights of students.

The ethnic studies ban isn’t the only state controversy to which Finchem’s bill appears to respond. According to the Arizona Mirror, it would also ban teachers from “discussing or giving opinions on any bill, legal case or executive action.” Supporters of the Red for Ed movement, which inspired the state’s teacher walkout last April, fear that both Finchem and Townsend seek to penalize teachers for participating in future protests. Both legislators opposed last year’s walkout: Finchem called the strike “an incredible show of bad faith” at the time, and has told press that he filed his bill in response to parental complaints about overt political speech from educators. Members of Purple for Parents, a right-leaning advocacy group formed to oppose Red for Ed, had indeed repeatedly complained about teacher speech both before and during the walkout. Julie Brown of Educate Gilbert, an offshoot of Purple for Parents, told the Ahwatukee Foothills News in August that her organization didn’t intend to “bash” Red for Ed but added, “The idea is no matter what you believe, it has to stay out of the schools.”

But it’s already unconstitutional for public educators to engage in religious advocacy in classrooms, and state law prohibits teachers from using public resources to “influence the outcome of an election,” as the Republic put it. Finchem and Townsend’s bills are unnecessary, and they’re written so sweepingly that they may actually violate the First Amendment.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona told the Mirror that some of the provisions proposed by Townsend and Finchem “have the potential to chill teachers’ speech.” “It also seems like this might have the effect of chilling certain teaching styles, like the Socratic method, the system of posing a question to students in order to foster critical thinking,” ACLU spokesman Steve Kilar added. If a high-school government teacher can’t discuss a proposed state bill without facing termination, it’s not difficult to see how Townsend’s bill in particular could be wielded to restrict academic freedom in public schools. In theory, the bill could also burden teachers’ unions, and not only because it would attach extra risk to participating in actions like a walkout. Arizona is a right-to-work state, and a potential increase in terminations could deplete unions’ rank-and-file membership.

Republican legislators have consistently criticized Red for Ed protests, and with the party largely still in control statewide, retaliation was likely inevitable. In Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, moved to take over the state’s largest public school system weeks after teachers walked out to protest his planned pension cuts. In their own fashion, however, Townsend and Finchem have broken ground. Their bills appear to be the first post-walkout legislative effort to punish teachers for future acts of political speech. It’s not immediately clear how likely it is that either bill will become law. Though the GOP controls both chambers of the Arizona state legislature and the governor’s office, their majority might be too slim to push the bills through, at least without major revisions. Even if they do pass, the bills may meet the same fate as the state’s ethnic studies ban. But that legal fight will be costly — for the state, for union resources, and for teachers themselves, whose promised raises depend almost entirely on the pecuniary whims of their Republican governor.

Arizona Lawmakers Look to Stifle Teachers’ Political Speech