Sen. Trent Lott put his foot in his mouth, but shouldn’t be forced to abandon his post.

Voters in South Carolina first elected Strom Thurmond to the Senate as a write-in candidate in 1948, and they have re-elected him ever since. First when he was a Democrat and then a Republican.

Voters in Mississippi first sent Republican Trent Lott to Congress in 1972, where he served in the House of Representatives. In 1988, they elected him to the Senate, where he continues to serve.

Clearly, these two men represent the people of their respective states or they wouldn’t have been repeatedly re-elected to office. They have also clearly won the admiration and respect of their colleagues, who have elected each of them to leadership positions in Congress.

Along comes Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration, a party where Sen. Lott was asked to offer a few words of praise for his colleague. He said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed his lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Thurmond’s presidential campaign was based on the separatist movement. It’s a platform he has since denounced.

After a public gasp of disapproval, Lott apologized, saying “a poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He was, he said, praising Thurmond’s positions on military and fiscal issues, among other things.

Lott’s apology didn’t stop former Vice President Al Gore from calling on the Senate to censure the senator or stop Jesse Jackson and others from calling for his resignation. Why? Because he spoke his mind?

Sen. Lott is entitled to the same freedom to speak as other Americans. The Senate cannot and should not censure him for expressing an opinion. The call by Jackson and Democratic Sen. John Kerry for him to resign is equally misguided. What we have here is an overreaction of political correctness.

Jackson, who wants Lott to leave the Senate altogether, is second-guessing voters in Mississippi, people who cast legal ballots to select a man to represent their views and protect their rights. Kerry merely wants Lott to resign his leadership position, second-guessing the remaining Republican Senate members who selected him their leader.

Lott has been in politics a long time and his political record and public views are open to scrutiny. Voters know who he is and made their choice. His colleagues work with him daily and elected him to lead them.

We certainly don’t have to agree with Lott, and we encourage Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to be vigilant in monitoring his direction of the Senate agenda. But, if the hammer comes down on Lott for saying something stupid, how free are ordinary citizens to speak without fear of reprisal?