Friday, May 21, 2010

Arizona is Lovely

I do not think the people of Arizona are racists or xenophobic - even if the Cuban government claims this is the case.

I do, however, think the uproar surrounding Arizona's new immigration law is merited.

From this blog's point of view, the most interesting back and forth has been about two words. I really enjoy a debate that can be broken down to the level of word choice. Popular examples of such debates are rare, but they make for great teaching tools.

Back when Arizona passed its immigration law, the initial uproar was over the words "reasonable suspicion." I have to admit, I never thought those words were problematic. Those words have a pretty clear legal definition.

My concern was whether or not Arizona cops could question a person without probable cause. They can do that here in Hungary, and it drives me crazy.

The words that left my 'probable cause' questions unanswered are Lawful Contact. Try as I may, I cannot find a clear legal definition of the concept, and the concept is critical to understanding Arizona's law (see line 20 of the law). And now the words have become the focus of many debating the law's merits.
Those who support the law claim that 'lawful contact' is what happens when an officer stops someone because they have broken a law, e.g. a traffic stop.
Critics suggest that 'lawful contact' could also include an officer speaking to someone who has not broken the law, e.g. a witness of a minor traffic accident. That is an example of an officer questioning an idividual without probable cause.

So we have a poorly defined key concept bound up in those two little words.

It will eventually take a judge to decide which interpretation of 'lawful contact' is correct. That troubles me. The courts only comes into play after the law has been enforced - after a police officer has exercised her interpretation of the law. It is sloppy lawmaking for legislators to leave something like this for the courts to decide.

When I help students draft research papers, I ask them to be more careful than the Arizona legislature has been. I suggest they develop their understanding of their subject's concepts, context, and issues. The term "concept" often trips up beginning researchers. Students define a concept as 'a key term required to discuss a subject', and that's more than half right. The problem, however, is that students don't define their concepts clearly enough. They'll use a term like CSR, but they never develop it into a clear concept. So when they write "corporations must behave in a socially responsible manner", a reader is left to decide what exactly 'socially responsible' means. Some read that term differently than others.

The Arizona legislature has made that same mistake here, and it could result in police harassment.

So there you have it, a real life example of a composition classroom issue.