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Kansas Lawmaker Wants to Throw|Teachers in Jail for Teaching ‘Harmful Material’

(CN) - Public schoolteachers in Kansas could be jailed for teaching "harmful material," and university professors would be banned from signing op-ed letters with their titles when writing about public officials, if two new bills become law.

Senate Bill 56 , introduced on Jan. 22 by state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, would amend Kansas' public morals statute by deleting an exemption that protects K-12 public, private and parochial schoolteachers from being prosecuted for presenting material deemed harmful to minors.

According to the bill, "harmful material" includes depictions of nudity, sexual conduct, homosexuality, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse "in a manner that is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community with respect to what is suitable for minors."

Teachers could be charged with a class B misdemeanor and face up to six months in jail if teaching materials contain depictions that a "reasonable person" would find to lack "serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors."

Pilcher-Cook said she sponsored S.B. 56 in response to parental outrage over a poster affixed to a Shawnee Mission middle school door last year that asked the question: "How do people express their sexual feelings?" and listed answers such as "hugging, kissing, saying 'I like you' and talking" along with other possibilities: "oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, vaginal intercourse, grinding, and touching each other's genitals."

"Pornography and obscene materials are becoming more and more prevalent in our society, and it is all too common to hear of cases where children are not being protected from the harm it inflicts," Pilcher-Cook told the Topeka Capital Journal.

Opponents of the bill say it is unconstitutionally broad and could be misused.

"Senate Bill 56 could criminalize teachers simply for distributing handouts, displaying posters or sharing educational information," Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Kansas, told the Kansas City Star.

"If a teacher is afraid that they're going to be charged and convicted of a misdemeanor just for doing their job, they're going to be a lot less likely to share any information that someone somewhere might object to," Kubic told KMBC-9 News.

The other bill, House Bill 2234 , introduced Feb. 4, would bar professors and university employees from using their official titles when they submit letters to newspaper opinion pages.

The bill targets newspaper opinion pieces specifically, and only when the writer's opinion concerns an elected official, a candidate for office or any matter pending before the Legislature.

The bill would require community colleges, municipal universities and technical colleges to have a policy that prohibits an employee from "providing or using such employee's official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column."

"It's silly is what it is," said Dr. Chapman Rackaway, professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

Rackaway said the bill was drafted in response to columns regularly published by Insight Kansas, to which he belongs, a blog run by a group of university professors who analyze Kansas politics in letters to newspapers.

Calls from television and newspaper reporters to Insight Kansas for opinions poured in to "near-saturation points" during the November 2014 Kansas elections, Rackaway said. In those elections, Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican, was elected to a second term, and Republicans seized control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.

Both bills intend to severely restrict speech "that is simply uncomfortable to some people," said Rackaway. "When you can't be critical of public officials, even when you have facts, you can't say that we live in a democracy," he said.

"The bill wouldn't be in place if people didn't want to somehow squelch us," Rackaway said. "It has a chilling effect. It's meant as a threat."

See another story on Kansas education on today's Courthouse News page.

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