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Published: Monday, 2/26/2007

Parched thinking in the desert

THE First Amendment gives Americans the right to free speech and the free flow of ideas. However, somebody needs to remind the Arizona legislature because a proposed bill there would take away citizens' rights in the halls of academia.

Some Republicans in the Arizona Senate don't want public school teachers and professors in public colleges to have the right to express their opinions. The legislators are attempting to stifle a wide range of thoughts and ideas of the sort that have been sharpening and challenging students' intellect since the time of Socrates.

So they are pushing a bill to make taking sides on any social, political, or cultural issue illegal. Amazingly, this anti-free speech measure was approved by a Senate committee after a party-line vote, with four Republicans supporting and three Democrats opposing.

Now the bill moves to the full Arizona Senate, where it should die a rapid death. The measure's sponsor is Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, whose granddaughter's elementary school teacher forced her class to write to a legislator opposing a bill. Frankly, that was wrong, and the teacher should have been disciplined. Expressing one's opinions is one thing; forcing them on others is something else.

But that bone-headed move should not be used as an excuse to pervert our civil rights. Students need to be challenged, in college especially. On campuses they should learn to defend their position and engage in vigorous debate with professors and classmates who think differently. The Arizona bill is so expansive it could mean suspensions, terminations, and even the loss of a teaching certificate.

Taken to its logical conclusions, such a law could mean the end of school speech and debate teams. It could also stifle intellectual stimulation and spirited discussion - that is, until it is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, most probably with a stinging and embarrassing rebuke.

Surely Arizona's lawmakers have better things to worry about - like how to cope with a growing population and a shrinking water supply.

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