Americans toss around words like totalitarianism, slavery and oppression as if they hold no weight. Disagree with a government policy? We are free to label it any way we want, no matter how wrong we are. Critical of a political official or prominent person? We are free to say so.

It's a luxury many Americans take for granted. Most are fortunate enough to have no true experience with the evils of totalitarianism, slavery or oppression - and for that we should be grateful.

Indeed, labeling the U.S. government as "totalitarian" is false on its face - but Americans have the constitutionally protected right to to be wrong - and to share their view.

Tucson is forging a direct link with this freedom of ideas and expression through the work of the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Professor Maggy Zanger will lead a project that connects the UA school and the University of Nangarhar in Afghanistan.

She will travel to Jalalabad to help create a journalism curriculum at the university there. In turn, professors from Afghanistan will come to the UA to study. The UA School of Journalism specializes in international journalism, and this is a natural extension of that work. (As a matter of disclosure, several Star reporters and editors teach at the UA School of Journalism, including a member of the editorial board).

The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

In addition to Zanger, UA librarian Atifa Rawan has been assisting in rebuilding libraries in Afghanistan. Another UA faculty member, R. Brooks Jeffery, director of the UA's Drachman Institute, is helping to educate Afghans in how to preserve and protect their cultural and historic sites.

The concept of a free press isn't without problems in the United States. Some Americans distrust information conveyed by this network or that newspaper, convinced that every word is driven by bias or ulterior motives. That's a far cry from what journalists face in many parts of the world, where the very act of sharing facts or opinion can lead to being thrown in prison - or far worse.

The work Zanger and others in the UA School of Journalism will do in Afghanistan has the potential to create the building blocks of a free society. Information is a cornerstone.

"We're always complaining about the U.S. media, myself included. But until you've been to a country where there's no free press, you just don't realize how important it is," Zanger told the Star's Carol Ann Alaimo. Zanger says she has lived and worked in Egypt, Iraq and Palestine.

Americans should be proud of our tradition of a free press, and we should exercise our First Amendment rights. We should be humble enough to recognize and treasure the privilege that is so fundamental - but all too scarce - around the world.

Arizona Daily Star