Topeka Capital Journal – Obscenity bill aimed at teachers. Sponsor says concern is to protect students

Obscenity bill aimed at teachers

Sponsor says concern is to protect students

Posted: Monday, February 26, 2007
By Tim Carpenter

Kansas school teachers possess legal protection in state law from criminal charges of promoting obscenity as long as educational materials used in class are of serious academic value.

Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, is leading an effort in the Legislature to chip away at this significant but obscure educational exception in criminal statute. His motivation is potential harm to minors if a teacher exposes children to a novel, play, film or textbook with content determined by a community to fit the definition of obscene.

“The practical effect of this defense is that materials that would be illegal if sold at a porn shop may be legal if displayed to a kindergarten class,” Kinzer said.

His bill, passed by the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, would strip public and private school educators at the K-12 level of the exemption. It would be retained by college and university faculty.

Only one member of the House committee voted against the bill, and Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, insisted her objections be written into the record.

“This bill is not about stopping nefarious teachers,” Mah said. “This bill is about giving nefarious district attorneys a tool to bring charges against English teachers.”

She was referring to Johnson County District Attorney Phill Kline, who served as the state’s attorney general until defeated for re-election in November.

Mah said there is a ready-made test case for Kinzer’s bill, if it were to become law, in the Blue Valley School District. That is in Kline’s territory.

A parent group, Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, has lobbied for years to convince the Blue Valley school board to remove 14 books from the district’s curriculum. The group directed its wrath at “low quality, f-word-laden and sex-filled” texts.

Rep. Benjamin Hodge, R-Overland Park, said state law regarding promotion of obscenity, a misdemeanor crime, gives school boards too much authority over classroom behavior. Kinzer’s bill, he said, would “at least give parents in Blue Valley a voice.”

Kinzer, however, said his bill wouldn’t necessarily alter the Blue Valley feud. The intent of the legislation is to go beyond a lone group of angry parents in a single district, Kinzer said.

And that is why anti-pornography groups are hailing the bill while representatives of the state’s powerful educational organizations question merits of the proposal.

John Burford, who lives in Mission and serves as pastor of Ward Parkway Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo., said school employees entrusted with delivery of curriculum to students shouldn’t have leeway to present obscene materials.

“The last place that should be immune from prosecution for distributing obscenity to children is the schools we charge to teach them the truth,” Burford said. “Obscenity is all about lies. Its lies include that sex is acceptable with anyone, at any time, in any place. Obscenity teaches that women will eventually enjoy rape if the rapist persists.”

Phillip Cosby, executive director of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, said local courts are capable of discerning between anatomy or sex education classes and the promotion of obscenity if a prosecutor brings charges against a teacher.

David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas-National Education Association, said Kinzer’s bill would impose a chilling effect in classrooms. Just the threat of prosecution will trigger self-censorship by teachers, he said.

“It seems clear to me that the intent of this legislation is to deter teachers from assigning certain controversial books for their classes to read, from selecting certain plays for drama classes to perform, from broaching certain subjects or using certain materials in sex education classes,” Schauner said.

Mark Tallman, assistant executive director for advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the Legislature wasn’t the best forum for settling disputes about a school district’s curriculum. Such disagreements are best left to voters who decide composition of the local school board, he said.

“We have elections every two years,” he said. “This is not a legislative issue.”

Tim Carpenter can be reached at (785) 296-3005 or