Providing a teaching moment (5/20/2012)

In order to achieve a meaningful dialogue, we should be focusing on ideas and not engaging in personal attacks, writes David Adler.

If you have followed discussion in the Post Register’s online Post Talk, you may be familiar with criticisms of my commentary on the constitutional claims of authority advanced by those who style themselves “constitutional sheriffs.”

Chad Christensen, an unsuccessful candidate for Bonneville County sheriff, wrapped himself in that label and accused me of being a “socialist.” Tim Urling intimated that I manipulate the Constitution to serve my political views. Both assertions are without foundation, but they provide me with a “teaching moment” in the cause of promoting civil and responsible dialogue.

Christensen said he enrolled in my class on constitutional law some years ago while I was on the faculty at Idaho State University. To be fair, I have no recollection of Christensen. He declared in his Post Talk remarks that he has read some of “Adler’s publications” and concluded that I am a “socialist.” Scholars have differences of opinion but seldom descend into the gutter of personal destruction. A leading English scholar, for example, has critiqued my views in an article but concedes that on important constitutional issues I have fairly represented the framers’ views and that some of my work has established convention in the scholarly world. John Yoo, the architect of President George W. Bush’s claims to power, has criticized some of my writings but has conceded that I am “an elite scholar.”

In various talks around the state, built on the theme of “Holding Government Accountable,” I’ve offered principles for citizens who wish to improve the quality of political dialogue. Among them is the need to avoid the practice of “labeling.” Christensen’s accusation is false, of course, but the worst part about it is that it’s straight out of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s playbook, which called for the dismissal of political opponents as “communists.” The aim of that scurrilous tactic was to demean, if not destroy, those with whom he had differences.

If Christensen, as a candidate for public office, wishes to avoid being characterized as frivolous or reckless, he must meet the burden of identifying those publications of mine which he claims to have read and which represent, in his view, that I am a socialist. Indeed, he should name them, cite them and, to satisfy public curiosity, quote the offensive language and arguments. Let this be a guide for those who seek office and exhibit an interest in civil dialogue: Facts and evidence matter.

Throughout my career, I have acknowledged those instances when my views collide with the Constitution, which is to say, on occasion, that I am on the “outside looking in.” This is not the behavior of a scholar who would impose his own predilections on the meaning of the Constitution. To support his accusations, Urling should summon facts and evidence from the Constitutional Convention, as well as judicial opinions, if he means to attack my credibility.

Adler holds the James A. McClure professorship at the University of Idaho, where he teaches constitutional law in the College of Law and serves as director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research.