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Arizona Takes Yet Another Step Backwards

Andre Segura,
Legal Director,
ACLU of Texas
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May 14, 2010

In the wake of the controversy surrounding Arizona’s racial profiling bill, S.B. 1070, Gov. Jan Brewer has signed into law yet another bill designed to divide the people of Arizona for political gain. In what has been described as the “ethnic studies bill,” H.B. 2281 prohibits schools from having courses which “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.” This law has the serious potential to deprive students of the opportunity to learn about Arizona’s and this nation’s rich and diverse cultural history, based simply on the personal whims of government officials.

This new law raises serious First Amendment concerns about government censorship of certain viewpoints, and threatens to chill the robust and free exchange of ideas by students and teachers. Rather than fostering the intellectual growth of its students, Arizona is attempting to dictate which political, cultural, and national views are orthodox. Will students not be able to learn about our nation’s history of slavery? Or if slavery is taught, will teachers be prohibited from teaching that slave owners were predominately white because it may cause some sort of resentment? Could students be prohibited from learning about Cesar Chavez and his efforts to improve the working conditions of farm laborers who were predominately Latino? As evident from the endless number of uncertainties created by this law, it is hopelessly vague and leaves far too much to the discretion of politicians.

But in debating what courses are proper for a school curriculum, it is easy to overlook that the fundamental function of our schools is to teach our young people to think. Over 40 years ago, the Supreme Court explained the critical responsibility our schools have:

The classroom is peculiarly “the market place of ideas.” The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth “out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.”

Arizona should be reminded of its duty to instill in its students our nation’s democratic values, including freedom of speech and a respect for other cultures, religions, and viewpoints.

H.B. 2281 paves the way for an endless series of attempts to ban certain courses or books found objectionable by one faction or another. Ultimately, a school’s curriculum becomes a quarrel among various groups rather than a program thoughtfully tailored to educate our youth. Arizona should spend more time celebrating its rich history, instead of taking steps to erase it.

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