Friday, November 20, 2015

Colleges and universities must defend free speech

The uneducated comments coming from higher education these days are startling.
Over at the University of Missouri, a student body representative recently said she’s “tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students” who engage in speech she deems hostile.
Up at Amherst College in Massachusetts, students are demanding the school issue a statement saying it does “not tolerate the actions of students who posted … the ‘Free Speech’ posters.”
And here in the south, students at Vanderbilt University are protesting a professor who once wrote that Islam was “dangerous” and that Christians should strengthen themselves “spiritually and intellectually” for continuing challenges to traditional marriage.
Good grief. So much for college being a liberated time and place for the open discussion of ideas. It’s become the opposite. But lest we roll our eyes and shrug the issue off as harmless antics from silly, spoiled college students, we should think hard about what is actually at stake.
To adjust the phrase, a threat to free speech anywhere in America is a threat to free speech everywhere in America. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how our freedoms could vanish after decades of steady erosion or even in a flash flood of political correctness.
The constitution cannot defend itself. Our rights depend on young Americans who’ve not only learned about things like the First Amendment, but who’ve also become convinced of their necessity, stalwart in their defense, and motivated to pass them along, intact. Sadly, our institutions of higher learning, which play a critical role in that effort, are failing miserably.
In case the First Amendment has become too subversive to be available on campus, here’s it’s actual language: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
There’s a great deal to unpack in those 45 words, but one doesn’t need to be a constitutional scholar to get the gist: we’re living in a free country, and if you don’t like what you’re reading, watching, or listening to, then look away, turn away, or walk away. We don’t honor the “heckler’s veto” in America, and nobody gets to turn down the volume on our free speech dial to the lowest common denominator.
We didn’t arrive at this state of quasi-Marxist groupthink overnight. Some of the institutions we depend upon to educate our children are either capitulating to, or collaborating with, radical movements who have illiberal notions of speech that simply aren’t compatible with the American way of life. 
Among the worst is the notion that only “correct” speech and “sanctioned” groups are protected – all others must be quarantined. In fact, one in six public colleges in the U.S. already use “free speech zones” to restrict student speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
At the University of South Alabama in Mobile, for instance, a prolife student club founded by Katherine Sweet was told in 2013 that they had to setup their display on an arguably low-traffic portion of the campus that’s designated for free speech.
“I went to South thinking it would be a place where I could debate freely with other students, engage in discourse, and ultimately learn from not only our professors, but each other,” wrote Sweet after she filed a lawsuit against the school. “Aren’t universities supposed to be atmospheres that promote just that?”
One would think so, but liberty seems passé on campus these days. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education graded 14 public colleges and universities in Alabama on their respect for free speech; nine received “red” warning lights while the rest only had “yellow.”
Before this virus of intolerance and ignorance spreads further into Alabama, our public colleges and universities should immediately abolish all so-called “free speech zones” and plainly reaffirm that the First Amendment is alive and well on campus.

Otherwise, our governor and state legislature should teach them a lesson by clearly banning all such intrusions upon the First Amendment. Our state’s students, and our nation, deserve no less.  
(First published on

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

We must do more to help our homeless veterans

There is a simple seven-word line in the Soldier’s Creed that always strikes a chord in my heart whenever I hear it uttered: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
It’s both a task and a promise, and it’s something that soldiers, and all members of our armed forces, take very seriously. Many men and women have risked their lives, and some have died, living up to those words. 
But what about our brothers and sisters in arms who have fallen on another type of battlefield, far from the sounds of rifles and mortars but still within an environment that can certainly take their lives, if not already their health, well-being and dignity?
This week, only hours after Veterans Day parades have wound their way through our nation’s cities, and after the speeches and patriotic slogans have faded from our minds, nearly 50,000 veterans will be sleeping in the streets, in their cars, or in homeless shelters. Prior year estimates have shown that there were more than 500 homeless veterans in Alabama alone.
This is a great shame, and an indelible stain on our nation’s honor.
We’ve heard about the problem before, of course. I remember as a little boy listening to stories on the evening news about homeless Vietnam veterans sleeping in the park across from the White House. The fact that a former soldier was homeless saddened me when I was a kid, and it burns me up now that I’m an adult.
Many folks feel the same way, but I know there are others who look at homeless veterans and assume that they’ve brought on their own problems: they became addicted to drugs and alcohol, some may think, and simply refused to straighten up. Others may believe that in this age of a massive welfare state, veterans must be homeless by some sort of inexplicable choice, and that if they really wanted help they could easily get it from a variety of government and private sources.
Part of that might be true for some homeless veterans, but might not be true for others. I’m not hero-worshipping here. I know some of them are no angels and some may indeed be partly to blame for their condition … but so what?
Before raising their right hands and agreeing to protect our nation, did these veterans first ask if the people they might die to protect were worthy of such a sacrifice? No, they didn’t. They signed-up to fight, and if need be, die, to protect the freedoms of every American, whether those they fought for were decent folks or not, and to protect the interests of the United States, whether those interests were sensible or not.
Besides, many homeless veterans are battling serious obstacles that would knock most people flat. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, “a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.”
It may seem impossible with the amount of tax dollars thrown at this problem, but at-risk veterans can, and do, slip between the cracks. Big government, even when armed with the noblest of intent, is still a clumsy, inefficient and impersonal mess.
So what’s to be done? Some experts say that while the Department of Veterans Affairs certainly has the resources, the best way to tackle the problem is through local groups that are operated by fellow veterans.  
“The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, ‘veterans helping veterans’ groups,” according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.”
So contact your mayor’s office and ask what groups are active in your community. Call them today and pledge your time or your money, or both.

These homeless veterans stuck their necks out for their country and didn’t ask for much in return. Offering them a helping hand is the least we can do, because we should never leave a fallen comrade, regardless of the battlefield.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pope’s recent failure strengthens my Catholic faith

Alabama can be an interesting place to be Catholic.
On the one hand, it’s challenging to live within an overwhelmingly evangelical community that generally believes our faith isn’t authentic Christianity. “If he’s a Christian, it’s despite being Catholic,” is how I’ve heard it said.
On the other, we have great opportunities to learn from the thriving protestant communities that dominate the Bible Belt – their knowledge of scripture, how they make church fun for families, and how they build thriving, mission-minded congregations.
But perhaps the greatest challenge, and opportunity, is when we’re questioned by a knowledgeable and well-meaning protestant. While there are many theological differences to discuss – why we believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, for instance – one of their favorite topics always seems to be the pope.
“Why do you think the pope is such a great guy?” someone might ask. Well, who said I did? Some popes are great while others aren’t. I’m sure you’ve had great pastors and not-so-great pastors, as well.  
“Why does the pope wear that funny hat?” I don’t know, it probably has something to do with customs and traditions. Why does your choir wear robes?  
“Why do you think the pope is infallible?” I don’t. He’s capable of making mistakes like the rest of us. But I do believe, as the fathers of the First Vatican Council wrote, that when the pope “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses … that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy.”
Plainly put, we believe the Holy Spirit prevents the pope from error when he defines a doctrine, which is an exceedingly rare occurrence by the way (most theologians agree that it last happened in the 1950, and even then it only affirmed an already centuries-old teaching).
Still, infallibility is when the wheels come off most discussions. In fairness, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a non-Catholic to be suspicious of the notion of papal infallibility. The term alone conjures fears of hubris, abuse, and excess.
If popes don’t like a doctrine, then they can simply change it, right?
Putting aside the fact that Catholic doctrine cannot change – once true, always true – I view papal infallibility as a great blessing that actually prevents popes from changing doctrine, not a means for them to do so. Being preserved from error doesn’t necessarily take the form of action, in giving the pope free-reign to change things. It most often takes the form of an unexplainable restraint from action, in something that keeps the pope from making any change at all, even when he wants to.
I believe we saw this happen last month in Rome.
Many church leaders believe Pope Francis wanted to use the Synod on the Family as a catalyst to change our church’s teaching on the indissolubility of a valid marriage (in other words, we don’t believe in divorce … ever). He demoted dissenting cardinals, stacked the forum with allies, and changed the meeting’s rules to allow an easier path for the majority’s view to be adopted in the final document.
But it wasn’t. Their efforts were halted, the teaching on indissolubility remained, and a clearly frustrated pope delivered a speech that many viewed as a harsh criticism of conservatives who hold fast to doctrine.   
That’s an amazing result. Consider this analogy for perspective: if the president of one of the mainstream protestant denominations called a general assembly with an aim to change something, invited a majority of pastors to the forum who agreed with his view, and had the support of a vast majority of the denomination’s members (polls show most Catholics want to change the church’s teaching on divorce), one would expect the change to occur without much fuss.
But there was a great deal of fuss in Rome, and nothing actually changed from what has been taught for 2,000 years. Sure, some bishops walked away thinking they had a wink and a nod to think differently, but we’ve always had those who dissented from church teaching.

In the end, the pope’s failure to change doctrine strengthened my belief in the Catholic Church and in the divine shepherd who keeps His sheep, and His church, from going astray. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Present Crisis Podcast

I’m still a far away from the launch of the inaugural episode of my weekly podcast, “The Present Crisis,” but I wanted to go ahead and drop a few lines explaining what the show will be about.

The title comes from a famous line in President Reagan’s inaugural speech in January of 1981. In those few words, the Great Communicator summarized both the disease and the cure: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

The podcast will begin in a few weeks. Meanwhile, check out the intro that I recently produced. It begins with an old War War II air raid siren effect and then incorporates the aforementioned line from President Reagan.

While his remarks focused on the crisis our nation faced in the early days of the 1980s, I’ve always believed his thoughts were timeless and summarized both the challenge facing our nation and the philosophy – limited government – that will save it. So, in a sense, the “present crisis” is an enduring one … hence the name of the show.

The weekly episodes will focus on the arenas of politics, culture, and faith, and I will analyze and comment upon the issues through my unique perspective as a former political aide and journalist. I plan to discuss and expand upon what I wrote in my weekly newspaper column, run through the major stories that made recent headlines, and also discuss any news that may have been ignored by the mainstream media … plus anything else I feel like talking about (football, books, film, church issues, the challenges of raising kids these days, etc.).

It’ll be a simple conversation, honest yet joyful, and a great deal of fun … at least for me!

Until we go live, remember … tomorrow will always be morning in America!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Free thinkers are an endangered species on campus

Perhaps the most eloquent explanation of free speech is the famous line attributed to the enlightenment thinker Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Roll over in your grave Voltaire, and tell Jefferson the news: free speech is dying in this supposedly enlightened future of ours.
Each month brings increasingly preposterous news about some group of college students forcing a speaker from campus in the name of diversity, or inclusion, or multiculturalism, or some other liberal notion that they’re proving they either don’t understand or don’t honestly value.
Earlier this month Williams College cancelled a speech by conservative author Suzanne Venker after students became absolutely unhinged and flooded the sponsoring group’s Facebook page.
When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’” read one particularly tedious comment, “You are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological and physical harm to students, but you are also -- paying -- for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters … you are dipping your hands in their blood.”
Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, the cancelled speech was part of a campus series titled “Uncomfortable Learning.”
With all the fuss, one would think these students are protesting visits by brutal dictators or holocaust deniers. Not exactly. Actually, many recently banned speakers shared something in common with Venker -- they’re women. Due to strident prattling from the chronically aggrieved, Rutgers University disinvited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from a commencement ceremony, Brandeis University canceled plans to honor women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Georgetown University’s campus was decorated with panic-stricken appeals to cancel a talk by feminist writer Christina Hoff Sommers.
I suppose that liberal women – and perhaps men pretending to be women – are the only women allowed to speak on college campuses these days.
So how did we arrive at this sad state of affairs? Simple: the inmates are running the asylum.
Administrators – either bullied into submission or in tacit agreement – are allowing a few very loud students to determine what’s fit for everyone else to hear. This runs counter to the very definition of a liberal arts education and attacks the basic point of an education at all, which is to learn something new and form a mind capable of critical thinking, not insulated offense-taking.
Administrators aren’t protecting their students from controversial speakers as much as they’re denying them opportunities to expand their minds.
“Unless you have freedom of discussion over a whole society, you’ll soon cease to have any new ideas,” Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said. “Don’t you find that new ideas develop when you can talk about them to other people? If you can’t discuss them freely – because there is a correct view – then you soon cease to have new ideas.”
It’s not only the fault of inexperienced and immature students. The creation of “free speech zones” on college campuses by administrators can also be blamed. These ridiculous bubbles foster the idea that some information isn’t fit to be seen or heard in the normal course of a student’s day. So the offending speech is quarantined, safely away from anyone it might offend, or educate.
When colleges ban speech, should we be surprised when students do the same?
What’s even sadder is that these students seem unaware of how exceedingly rare and precious freedom of speech is, even in the West. Best-selling author Neil Gaiman expressed this last year when accepting an award for battling censorship. He spoke about his early years writing under Great Britain’s restrictive publication laws, and then coming to the United States and discovering something wonderful.
“Instead, you had this magical, wonderful, pristine, glorious, glittering thing called the First Amendment,” Gaiman said. “You actually had the right to freedom of speech, the right to write down what you thought, to utter it, to comment, and write, and talk about the opinions of other people, and I thought this was magic.”

It’s sad: more Americans are eagerly trading away that magic for a pseudointellectual sleight of hand that promises diversity of thought, but only delivers a cheap illusion of enlightenment that’s actually polished ignorance.
(First published on

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The House GOP is far from a crisis

The establishment wing of the Republican Party is having a full-blown panic attack.
Crisis. Chaos. Disaster.
Those are just a few of the words being over used to describe the House Republican Conference after embattled Speaker John Boehner suddenly quit and his hand-picked successor gave up his brief attempt at the gavel last week.
As the dust settles, GOP lawmakers supposedly look “divided and in disarray” according to NBC News, while the Politico says some are “just exasperated.”
Are things really that bad? No. The conference is cleaning house. But for a group that’s supposed to be full of businessmen, it’s surprising that many think the ouster of an ineffective leader, and then passing on his recommended replacement, wasn’t necessary. Had the speaker and his lieutenants been running a company, they’d have all been fired long ago.
That’s why all of this supposed tumult is music to the ears of many conservatives. Far from chaos, we see the shakeup as a promising sign that we may be getting closer to the type of legislative branch leadership we’ve asked for since giving Republicans control of Congress. We see a real opportunity to direct the flow of coming events not only with who we support as the next speaker, but by firmly telling them what they must deliver once in office.
And that’s what it’s about: policies, not personalities.
In the past few days we’ve heard that “recalcitrant” conservatives ran poor old Boehner off because the veteran lawmaker wasn’t conservative enough. Now, they say, our “nihilist club” has scared away all reasonable replacements because most potential candidates aren’t far enough to the right.
That’s a misreading of why conservatives ousted Boehner, and a typical misunderstanding of what we want from our leaders, especially how we think good ones are supposed to work the chessboard of politics. 
Boehner didn’t lose support from conservatives because he failed some sort of ideological litmus test. He may have been plenty conservative, but that wasn’t the issue. Boehner lost our support, and then gained our ire, not just by losing fights with the White House, but by failing to fight at all.
Sometimes, as every novice chess player quickly learns, you have to sacrifice a piece to get into better position later. But if the White House issued a veto threat, Boehner, and his equally ineffective counterpart in the upper chamber, Senator Mitch McConnell, would instantly cave and send over whatever language could be signed into law.
“Congress is back in business,” Boehner and McConnell would say, while proudly rattling off the number of bills that were signed by the president during the last session. Boehner confused the ability to pass bills that Obama liked with the ability to pass bills that his members – and more importantly, their constituents – wanted. They’d fight like hell for bills the White House backed – a bill to fund a crony capitalist bank and a lopsided Pacific trade deal, for instance – then half-heartedly offer bills conservatives asked for, like preventing millions of tax dollars from funding Planned Parenthood, only to fold in the eleventh hour.
The establishment said we couldn’t get anything done until we won the House. So we gave it to them. Then they said the Senate was needed before anything could be passed. So we won that, too. Now we’re told that we need the White House before any of our conservative priorities can be achieved.
What a copout. President Ronald Reagan signed historic tax cuts when the House was overwhelmingly Democrat. Newt Gingrich passed welfare reform with a popular Democrat in the White House, as well.
It didn’t take control of both branches; it took leadership.
Conservatives have finally had enough. It’s pointless to sit atop the largest Republican majority in decades if you’re not going to fight and win. That’s the lesson the next speaker should take from all of this.
Our congressmen will soon send us all a message when they vote on the next speaker; whether they support more of the same, or a strategy built around fighting, and winning, for conservative principles.

The only real crisis would come if they fail by once again not choosing a fighter and a winner for speaker.
(First posted on