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The Cost of Incivility II -- sex education

1/17/2014

In 2003 and again in 2008, attempts were made to close down sex education in Kansas across both the K-12 and university levels. The 2003 effort was vetoed by the governor, and the 2008 effort failed to pass the Kansas House.

Similar to many other states, Kansas has an obscenity law based on "community standards." But medical doctors and teachers have an exemption, an "affirmative defense" against prosecution. Kansas long has recognized pictures and words that are "obscene" when viewed on Main Street are quite appropriate and necessary for both physicians and teachers in appropriate medical and school settings.

In these cases, the legislators who proposed the laws were responding to what they perceived as teaching conduct that went beyond what is expected of professional teachers. So they attempted to prohibit any teaching about sex at all, whether presented professionally or unprofessionally.

In the classroom, "professional" conduct is defined by the common and widespread practices of similar teachers nationwide. It also is constrained by the professional need for good communication and respect for the students.

Academic freedom is not academic license.

Academic freedom comes with academic responsibility.

At the university level, the American Association of University Professors has clarified this in their "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure."

In the classroom, the AAUP summarizes in section 2: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

This is a place where the teacher's supervisors, departmental chairs and deans, have a responsibility to ensure teachers under their jurisdiction are not going beyond the limits of the course, politicizing the course, proselytizing or treating students in a disrespectful manner. Administrators from kindergarten to graduate school not only have a right to corral a "loose cannon" who is not fulfilling their professional responsibilities, they have a duty to do so. Both schools and the AAUP have procedures to accomplish this that provide due process.

But what about outside of the classroom? Section 3 states: "College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."

Teachers are held to a standard higher than we generally find in public forums, where uncivil comments and often anonymous slander are rampant in public comment blogs.

In the future, it is possible Kansas sex-education teachers at all levels will again have to defend our courses against attempts to remove our exemption from the obscenity law.

Such an attack likely will occur because somewhere, a teacher failed to teach with professionalism, was cavalier or violated the dignity of students in the class.

These attempts to curtail sex education are not an academic "freedom of speech" issue. Our Legislature has full authority to remove the obscenity exemption. And schools have the authority to hold their teachers to professional practice.

If we have to fight this battle again, it likely will be triggered by unprofessional conduct in the classroom.

Incivility has consequences.

John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.

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