Religious Wrong

Mesa Republican Representative Russell Pearce, co-chairman of the powerful Arizona House Appropriations Committee, is launching a pitched assault on the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Pearce, a member of the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church, put language in this year's state budget bill to eliminate funding for campus publications in Arizona because they have run stories and photographs he considers offensive. The next step is for the bill, which passed on a split vote of the Appropriations Committee, to go before the full House.

Pearce claims he was approached by several legislators who were outraged by sex columns in Arizona campus papers, including one in Arizona State University's State Press that gauges students' sexual techniques. The State Press column by Erika Wurst is accompanied by what Pearce considers sexually explicit photos.

"If you want to be a free press, be a free press, but we're not going to subsidize articles that are over the top, and there were a lot of folks that felt [such articles were] over the top," Pearce told the Associated Press.

Could Pearce, who did not return my phone calls, also have been talking to the Phoenix-based crackpot group Americans for Decency, which recently listed the State Press as the number two threat to decency in the entire state?

Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, says he can't recall another case where a state has tried to throw a blanket ban on student press funding.

"It's disheartening that public officials are so ignorant of the First Amendment," Goodman says. "[Legislators] can't take out a partial form of speech solely as a way to punish students or prevent them from publishing things [the lawmakers] don't like."

Cameron Eickmeyer, editor of the State Press, isn't sure the "footnote" Pearce added to the budget bill has much chance of passing. He thinks the lawmaker may be merely posturing to his constituents.

"I think it's a political statement more than anything for Pearce," Eickmeyer says. "The next time reelection comes up, he could say, 'Well, I fought that battle.'"

Indeed, many state political insiders think Governor Janet Napolitano would exercise her line-item veto power on the spending bill and excise Pearce's provision.

But let's not forget that the governor has a history of kowtowing to powerful Mormons in the Legislature. She's kept her head buried firmly in the sand when it comes to the sexual abuses of underage girls in the fundamentalist Mormon enclave of Colorado City. I'm not the only one who thinks this is because she doesn't want to offend the likes of Pearce by airing out the Mormon Church's polygamous dirty laundry -- even if it means offending her bedrock feminist constituency.

Pearce's unabashed grab for the censorship scissors shouldn't be dismissed as a nod to his electorate, or as the misguided ravings of an East Valley bonehead who has no understanding of the Constitution.

This obscene attack on the free press is part of a broad-based assault by religious zealots and conservative Republicans led by President Bush to destroy a pillar of American democracy -- the separation between church and state.

This is not the first attack on Arizona's college newspapers.

ASU's State Press came under fire last year after another prominent Mormon -- homebuilding mogul Ira Fulton -- complained to ASU President Michael Crow about a black-and-white photo illustration in the campus paper of a bare breast with a pierced nipple.

Fulton is one of the wealthiest men in Arizona. He has a reported net worth of $355 million and has given ASU $58 million since 2003. Crow -- who's always on the make for cash to build his "New American University" -- responded to Fulton's complaint by threatening to eliminate funding to the State Press.

Crow has since toned down the rhetoric. The administration at ASU hinted to Pearce that it would prefer he drop his effort to eliminate funding to campus publications, but it stopped short of officially opposing the language in the bill. Crow didn't respond to my attempts to reach him for further comment.

Asked if he's concerned that Crow and the administration haven't come out strongly against the budget bill addendum, State Press editor Eickmeyer says, "It would be nice to know that [the administration] has our backs. Then again, I haven't heard anything to the contrary [from Crow's office]."

The First Amendment attacks by Pearce and Fulton pack far more thunder than a mere attempt to cut a small amount of funding from campus media. (ASU's campus media receive $153,000 of their $1.5 million annually from the university. The rest comes mostly from advertising sales. It's unclear whether the student media would be forced to vacate campus offices if Pearce's legislation became law.)