The new golf legend

Jordan Spieth’s image as it appears on his Twitter account.

Much discussion is taking place after Jordan Spieth’s win in the British Open yesterday. (I’ll leave for another day discussion of the use of “British” in the name of the tournament.) It was a spectacular closing round, and without question it elevates Spieth’s stature in the game and provokes endless speculation about his future.  He has now won three majors at the age of 23, and yesterday’s win certainly would seem to rid him of demons from his meltdown in the final round of the 2016 Masters. He will compete next month in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina. Should he win, he would be the youngest player in history to win the Grand Slam of golf.

Golf commentator Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner, had an interesting observation in an interview on ESPN Radio. He said that if you saw Spieth on a practice range with some of the other top golfers today, including Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy, you wouldn’t think Spieth was the best. Spieth isn’t the strongest or the longest. And he will occasionally hit a real foul ball off the tee, as he did on No. 13 in the final round yesterday. But through the end of the British Open, Spieth is second in greens in regulation. He’s third on the PGA Tour in putting with an average of 1.710. That translates to wins. But time has a way of evening out our predictions and our perspectives. In 2014, when McIlroy won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championsionship, there was a lot of betting on the young phenom from Northern Ireland being the next great thing. He may yet be, but he’s been in a bit of a slump.

Part of the discussion now will naturally focus on majors. Jack Nicklaus won 18. Tiger Woods has 14, none since the train wreck of his personal life and marriage in 2009. It seems unlikely that Woods can ever add to that total. Spieth will almost certainly win more majors.  But I honestly don’t see Spieth getting close to Nicklaus, and perhaps even Woods. It’s difficult to explain my reasons, but it’s just a feeling. Predicting the next 10 to 15 years for any athlete is impossible. Certainly he would have to remain in good health and free of any significant injuries. And he would have to continue a strong focus and commitment to excellence, despite having extraordinary wealth that is a part of success in professional golf.

Spieth is also just a really good guy. He has a nice family history and knows how to behave, on and off the golf course. But he also lacks a certain flamboyance, and whether he can help the visibility of the sport and golf ratings on television over the long term remains to be seen. I just don’t see anyone dominating the sport as did Woods from 1997-2008.  That dominance helped produce interest and ratings. Even before Woods’ fall from public grace in 2009, he had a good image, and his aggressive play on the golf course, together with an extraordinary flair for the dramatic shot at the right time, helped the game and television ratings soar. That will never happen with Spieth. And while it shouldn’t create judgment about his standing in the game, we do tend to assess greatness in a way that isn’t completely data driven.

British politics ‘cocked up’ like ours

I have just returned from teaching in our SMU-in-London program, and we had another very productive five weeks.  It was a pleasant visit, with the notable exception of the London Bridge terror attack in our first days in London. The SMU-in-London program involves about 40 students, mostly from the communication arts programs. I have for some years taught a course in British media where we look at the history and current state of the news media in London. The newspapers, always entertaining and highly politicized, have given substantial coverage to the Brexit issue that began last year. In June of 2016 the vote was 52%-48% for the UK to leave the European Union. It was a shocking result. Pollsters generally had it wrong in the weeks before the vote, and there was also the shock result of widely perceived anger and populism, agreeing with much of the analysis of the 2016 vote that made Donald Trump president. My British media students studied the issue in relation to the corresponding positions taken by the seven or eight key newspapers in London. The second assignment for the semester was for the students to write a newspaper editorial of 1,000 words either encouraging full speed ahead on Brexit or, if they thought Brexit was a bad idea, encouraging another vote.

In the aftermath of the vote last year, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party stepped down since he had urged a remain vote. His resignation paved the way for Theresa May to become prime minister. In March, she triggered Article 50, which began the formal two-year process for negotiations to withdraw the UK from the EU. This means that by March of 2019, British membership in the EU will end. Various EU officials have made much noise about how much the exit will cost the British in terms of exit fees, and also how difficult the negotiations will be for the UK to maintain any trade or economic benefits from the EU.

What follows are, in no particular order, a few observations from someone who follows British politics pretty closely and has observed the Brexit situation as it has developed over the last five or six years.

  • I heard much outrage from Americans regarding the Brexit vote. It pretty much paralleled the opinions about the people who voted for Donald Trump. Namely, that they generally are unsophisticated rubes who just don’t understand the larger picture. That attitude is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons Hillary Clinton was such as disaster as a Democratic nominee for president, and a good reason why Brexit is in process. There are many good reasons to have voted for Brexit. Immigration became an emotional issue in the weeks before the vote. The liberal press in London tended to brand the sentiment racist. Yet, the issue is complex, and immigration has created difficult questions for the UK government, especially in London. And it stands to reason, at least to me, that a sovereign nation should be able to make decisions regarding control of its borders, and not have those decisions made by a centralized government in Brussels. The same goes for legal issues regarding the rights of criminal defendants. Now, had I been a citizen of the UK, I would have cast a vote to remain in the EU. But I also would have strongly urged the British government to take back several key issues dealing with sovereignty, immigration among them. My friend Elizabeth Palmer of CBS News in London makes a very good point about how elections seem to be framed these days. Whatever the issue or the candidates, Liz said, “The real question is, ‘Are you pissed off?’ Check. And the candidate or the referendum result that corresponds with that sentiment will usually win.”
  • I believe the size and scope of government in the United States was a key consideration for Donald Trump’s narrow victory. I believe the size and scope of the EU’s bureaucracy and eagerness to regulate were key factors in the Brexit vote. In the days leading up to the vote last year, the conservative press played up the costs of the bureaucracy. There were some incorrect figures used about the weekly cost of membership paid by the British government. But there were also stories about the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the members of the European Union Parliament and the bureaucrats occupying key positions. Expensive travel and meal allowances are the norm. Generous staffing and office supply budgets, including daily Champagne, were noted. One can easily understand the reasons these luxuries don’t sit well with London cab drivers. Last year one of the many fascinating Brexit stories I saw on the BBC was a piece detailing the EU regulations on strawberries. The piece noted EU regulations that called for very specific size, texture and color of strawberries. There are even regulations regarding the color and size of the stem. Strawberries have been grown in England for more than 500 years. Strawberries and cream were first put together during the court of Henry VIII. And the strawberries in England are superb. Does anyone really need to tell the Brits about how strawberries should look and taste?
  • David Cameron was re-elected in 2015, promising to hold a referendum on Brexit. After taking office when Cameron resigned, Theresa May held a solid Conservative Party majority in Parliament and did not have to stand for re-election until 2020. However, leading nicely over rival parties in the polls and apparently wanting an even stronger Conservative majority in Parliament, she called a snap election that was held the first week in June. A bigger majority would have given her a stronger mandate to negotiate Brexit on her terms. The campaign went badly, and this is where things got “cocked up.” Cocked up is a fascinating British expression, and for Americans it is generally assumed to have somewhat of an obscene meaning. Not necessarily so, as the meaning and origin of the phrase make clear.  In any case, Theresa May ran a campaign about as bad as Hillary Clinton’s. One of the biggest blunders was what came to be branded by the Labor Party as the dementia tax.  The current Labor Party leader is Jeremy Corbin, an avowed socialist who had a completely undistinguished career in Parliament for more than 30 years before the Labor Party, in a solid defeat to David Cameron in 2015, took a hard left turn and made him leader. Corbin, to his credit, was bold and articulate in the campaign, completely the opposite of Theresa May. He promised lavish spending, including tuition-free university education and bigger budgets for the National Health Service, that the government could not possibly afford. But no matter. The Conservatives’ number of seats fell short of a majority, and now May has had to grovel for a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. This simply means May will have the 10 votes of the DUP on key votes in Parliament and can continue to govern.  May’s grip on the government is tenuous. The Brexit negotiations will be slippery. Another major “cock up” and she could be subject to a call for a vote of no confidence. And that’s where things could really be interesting.

As Donald Trump continues to navigate uncharted territory in U.S. politics as well as historically low popularity numbers, we are not alone in the world. Our best ally is in a similar mess.

Welcome First Amendment decisions

Whatever one thinks of the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a rare consensus emerging to protect free speech. Two court decisions this week highlight this important protection of the First Amendment. The first decision came in favor of an Asian rock group that attempted to trademark the name Slants. The group challenged the U.S. Patent and Trademark office because of a law against trademarks that disparage people or groups.  The leader of the group, Simon Tam, said that the group was trying to reclaim the slur against Asians as a point of pride. The group lost in the first legal rounds. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by the court’s liberal wing, but all justices agreed on the basic decision that the law infringed on free speech.

The court was also unanimous in striking down a North Carolina law that prohibited sex offenders from using social media websites on which they might come into contact with potential targets. Kennedy wrote that the law was much too broad and “unprecedented” in limiting the scope of First Amendment speech. The court noted that the law prevented sex offenders from engaging in public discourse and using websites that might lead to employment. It’s obviously difficult to find sympathy with sex offenders, and several of the justices noted that much narrower laws limiting sex offenders’ access to social media might withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The first case seems to lend broad support to the ongoing controversy of the Washington Redskins. The NFL team has been pressured to change the mascot of the team because the term is widely considered offensive. Team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement that he was thrilled, and “Hail to the Redskins.”

Even some conservatives have agreed that the term Redskins is offensive, and is different in its characterization than other similar terms, “Chiefs,” as in those in Kansas City, and “Braves,” as in Atlanta. Numerous college and high school sports teams have been pressured into changing mascot names. Some of the changes perhaps have been justified; others, sadly, have simply been caving to the pressure of political correctness. I agree that the origin of the term “Redskins” leads one to the conclusion that the term is disparaging and offensive. So be it. Do we really want government bureaucrats making that determination? If the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the right to be offensive, and, yes, even hateful. We are seeing appalling attempts by certain groups on the left to limit free speech and to place boundaries on robust dialogue. The court’s decisions this week, especially the first regarding offensive trademarks, are a welcome affirmation that the First Amendment still stands for free speech.

Tiger will be second after all

News media have reported the arrest of Tiger Woods in Florida for driving under the influence. Woods immediately took responsibility for the incident, but said that alcohol was not involved and that he suffered a bad reaction to pain medication after a recent surgery. The police report seems to corroborate Tiger’s statement. Nonetheless, it’s another chapter in the fall of one of the most storied athletes of the post-World War II generation. And it’s a shame. The beginning of the downfall can no doubt be traced to the late 2009 incident in which Tiger had been chased out of his home after his wife, Elin Nordegren,  discovered his infidelity. Reports had her hitting him with a golf club, which he denied. For the next months, his girlfriends came out of the woodwork to comment to journalists and describe his affairs. His infidelities included a number of high-dollar prostitutes..

He has won tournaments since 2009, but not a major. He is stuck on 14 major tournament wins, second only to Jack Nicklaus at 18. Throughout his first years on tour, Woods seemed on track to beat the record of 18. That won’t happen. It’s interesting that a number of Golf Channel and network specials have in the past year or so reviewed the Nicklaus record, which truly is extraordinary. It’s almost as if it’s now clear Nicklaus will be considered the greatest golfer of all time. The chances of anyone now challenging his record seem remote. (It’s always been equally impressive to me that Nicklaus finished in second or tied for second 19 times in major tournaments, in addition to his wins.)

Woods had a major impact on golf in the late 1990s and early part of the 20th Century. He did wonders for television ratings. He was a charismatic figure on the golf course who had the knack for making spectacular shots at exactly the right time. There were always others in the game’s history who did certain parts of the game better. Greg Norman,  Lee Trevino, and Colin Montgomery were better drivers of the golf ball. Many could play mid-irons better. Nicklaus himself was without question the finest long iron player in the history of the game, and he played in a time when long irons were important. Phil Mickelson was and is the best short iron player. Gary Player was without equal as a bunker player. Bobby Locke, Billy Casper and Ben Crenshaw were better putters. (And Nicklaus wasn’t bad in that category, either.) But nobody put all the elements of the game together and played with the complete skill that Woods had. From the time Woods won his first major tournament at the Masters in 1997 until the 2009 incident, he was the best. And no one else was even close.

Our heroes have a way of disappointing us, sometimes tragically. Woods is no exception. And in fairness, Woods has aged. As this is written, he’s 41. Multiple surgeries on his back have been a major hindrance. And he has also worked with multiple coaches over the years, demonstrating at least three very different setups and golf swings at various times in his career. It’s rare that we have seen an athlete develop so publicly from childhood and continue through the prime of his career and then into the twilight. But long after the tabloids and the mainstream news media are finished with the lurid details of his life, his record will remain. He will be second-best in terms of major championship titles, but that record, as well as his ability, determination, and charisma, will be the standards by which future golfers are judged.

The Washington Post rises

CBS This Morning had an interview with Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron this week.  It was an interview that editors dream about, very laudatory and mentioning specifically several major news stories the paper has reported first about the Trump administration. The decades-long competition with The New York Times was mentioned, and for sure editors and staff at the Times have to be cringing at the stories the Post has published first. In the old days of newspapering, we called them scoops. And when you got beat, it was not good.

Baron was asked about the new ownership at the Post, and he said that the purchase of the paper by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had brought financial capital to the paper but also intellectual capital in pushing the organization into the digital age. To me, Amazon is one of the most extraordinary companies of the digital age. And The Washington Post has been reinvigorated since Bezos purchased the paper from the Graham family more than three years ago. In the last couple of years I have recommended the Post to a number of people who have asked for a recommendation of a quality newspaper. The paper’s political coverage is solid, the international staff still very engaged, and, as a personal bonus for me, the sports section is nicely done. Certainly the editorial page of the paper leans left, but I find it more reasoned and more balanced than the sharply left and often maddeningly shrill editorial page of the Times. And George Will is a solid conservative columnist and also one of the finest stylists writing for a newspaper.

Newspapers continue to struggle in the digital age. The reasons are many and varied. I agree with many conservative critics that many news organizations seem intent on making the Trump administration a failure. Just as many news organizations insisted on doing everything possible to make the Obama administration a success beginning in 2008. Obama had marginal success as a president. I’ve predicted that Trump will actually have more success than some people, especially Democrats, believe. But the news stories that the Post has broken provide information the public needs to know. And it also creates a telling environment indicating that the Trump administration needs to make serious adjustments in its strategies and communications.  I believe the Obama administration was ill-served by the softball coverage it received, especially in the early years.  Thomas Jefferson helped create the idea of the press as a check on government. He survived some of the most vicious criticism and name-calling one could imagine. And he proved to be one of our best presidents. I believe government is best served, and presidents, too, by strong coverage that provides the information people need to know for the self-governance intended by the Founders.

More sad news from college campuses

News reports over the past weekend detailed a decision by officials at Texas Southern University in Houston to revoke an invitation for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to speak at commencement. The action came after a petition signed by 850 people protested his appearance. TSU is a historically black university established in 1927.

This represents another sad chapter in which a university decides on a speaker based solely on political perspective. The record of universities either revoking an invitation to speak or having students shout down unpopular speakers in protest continues to grow.  It is tragic that university administrations continue to allow and sometimes even support such appalling intolerance of free speech.  The petition against Cornyn specifically cited his confirmation votes for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. If there’s a difference of opinion, fair enough. Differing opinions can be expressed in a civil manner.  Each semester I teach my ethics students that one of the many brilliant concepts our Founders adopted was the marketplace of ideas, generally credited to the British poet John Milton.  We are gradually losing awareness of that founding principle.

For my money, John Cornyn is a pretty good guy. He had a solid record as attorney general in Texas. He was reasoned in his opinions, and he was quite supportive of open government, including open records and open meetings. There are plenty of extremists in the GOP camp, just as there are extremists on the Democratic side.  John Cornyn isn’t an extremist. He’s now named on the short list of those President Trump is considering to replace fired FBI Director James Comey. Truthfully, Cornyn would be an excellent choice. But I would actually prefer that he continue his leadership role representing Texas in the United States Senate.

Ethics, AP and the Nazis

The Washington Post has done some fascinating reporting on a secret agreement made between the Associated Press and Nazi Germany in 1941. The agreement allowed for photographs by German photographers to be used by the AP and distributed as a part of its regular photo service to AP member news organizations. It raises old and difficult questions about ethics. The AP says that it did nothing to compromise its independence as a news organization. And yet the propaganda effects of some of the photographs are obvious. It is always difficult to make assessments on such matters more than 70 years after the fact. The AP was of course charged with obtaining news and photographs about world events. And yet by 1941, the world pretty much knew of the tyranny and ultimate ambition of Adolf Hitler, even if the full scope of the Holocaust was not widely known. I have always respected the AP and, during my time as an editor, gave it my full support. Even understanding the difficulty in trying to make the correct assessments on such an agreement in 1941, I am bothered to learn of it today.

A passion for journalism

Last month, my friend Selwyn Crawford was making a few closing remarks at the 26th annual Journalism Day sponsored by The Dallas Morning News. Journalism Day is an event for high school journalists and teachers in North Texas. More than 370 attended this year. The SMU Division of Journalism is a contributing sponsor. Selwyn got a little fired up in his comments, which I believe were entirely spontaneous. And in doing so he gave high school students, and all of us, the reason we should be journalists and take great pride in what we do. Here’s the video of Selwyn’s remarks.

Trump’s first 100 days

ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, SMU Journalism chair Tony Pederson

News media have been filled with reports on President Trump’s first 100 days in office. It’s always been a standard news media measurement, but it’s even more important now in the digital age. If you do an Internet search on the topic, literally thousands of links will appear. I was honored last week to be on a panel to discuss the topic at the Headliners Club in Austin. The Headliners Club has for more than 60 years discussed news and major events with a membership of members of the news media and government as well as business leaders in Texas. And the Headliners Foundation of Texas annually provides excellent scholarships for students studying journalism and communications.

The second panelist was ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd. The moderator was veteran journalist and chair of the Headliners Foundation of Texas Board of Governors Mark Morrison.  We had a lively discussion in front of a packed Headliners Club. (The food and the cocktails at the Headliners Club are exactly as I remember them. Excellent.) Matthew and I were asked to grade Trump’s first 100 days. Matthew gave Trump an incomplete; I gave him a C. Perhaps it’s my tendency as a professor to want to attach a fixed grade. We both agreed that Trump’s biggest accomplishment has been the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch, 49 years old, is a solid conservative and should be an influence on the court for decades. His background and education are of a superb legal intellectual.

We discussed at length the various failures of the new Trump administration, and they are many. Clearly, not making good on the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare is a major failure.  His travel restrictions from Muslim countries and his effort to block funding to sanctuary cities are tied up in the courts. His recently announced tax reform, in which he seeks a major reduction in the corporate tax rate and an increase in the personal deduction, is being met with scorn from Democrats and some general skepticism. I predicted, however, that Trump will be successful in getting some type of a major rewrite of the tax code. Even the most skeptical Democrats would agree that a revised, comprehensible tax code would be a good thing.

In assigning a grade to Trump’s first 100 days, I noted that his supporters generally have a different take on the news. For the most part, they are not seeing a daily catalog of failures and shortcomings that are the headlines on the major evening newscasts, The New York Times and The Washington Post. My comment to the Headliners Club was this: “Most Trump supporters are saying, ‘Yes, by God, we got our man elected. He’s moved into that White House and he’s giving ’em hell at every turn. Just what we wanted.'” And I think polling bears that out. His hard-core supporters like what he’s doing. They live a different reality than the mainstream news media, particularly the Eastern media. Which is why so many in the media were surprised that he won in the first place, and why Democrats remain so embittered.

I noted in an earlier blog and op-ed that Trump’s erratic and often angry campaign has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies. I think a grade of C is appropriate. He’s been average. No more and no less. But it has been pointed out, and noted at our Headliners discussion, that presidents have had a bad first 100 days and then gone on to be considered very good. Harry Truman is such an example. And there have been others have an excellent start in the first 100 days and then go on to be considered poor presidents. Jimmy Carter is such an example.

We were also asked about Trump’s characterization of journalists as “enemies of the people.” I said it was of course nothing more than Trump’s hyperbolic approach to his Twitter feed and much of his commentary in general. Nonetheless, I said that words can be hurtful. There is certainly enough criticism of modern news media, and much of it is deserved. But if we forget the traditional and necessary role of the news media in democracy and in modern society, we will err grievously. I said that we have been on a path of the last 20 years in which news media essentially have been marginalized by government. I noted the unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Eric Holder Justice Department in one of the numerous and relentless leak investigations during the Obama administration. I noted the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that did serious damage to access to public information. And I said that the Federal Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966 and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, had been a global model for government transparency but now is crippled by bureaucracy, inefficiency and a government tendency to want to operate in secret. I said at the Headliners meeting that my friend and colleague Mike Wilson, editor of The Dallas Morning News, had written a nicely nuanced column in response to the Trump tweet on journalists. Being a journalist and editor has never been easy, and today’s hostile environment, not to mention the economic situation for most news media, has made journalism and news especially difficult. Before leaving this topic, I noted that Hillary Clinton despises and distrusts the news media every bit as much as does Donald Trump. She just doesn’t tweet about it.

Of the major news reports on Trump’s first 100 days, one of the best to me has been done by John Dickerson of CBS News.  The highlights are in several segments of video on the CBS website.  There is also a full transcript of the interview available.

I predict Trump will be more successful than many Democrats can stand and less successful than many Republicans want. At the Headliners discussion, both Matthew and I agreed that international issues could create a crisis in which Trump could enjoy popular support. The rally-round-the-flag sentiment is historically very powerful. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is kooky and very likely mentally unstable. He is a wild card in a world of unpredictable and dangerous currents and events. But also unpredictable will be whether Trump’s tax plan and domestic policies can fuel real economic growth. The general economic malaise has been a part of the angst that fueled Trump’s candidacy and his election. The U.S. has also had a bull market that just turned eight years old and economic growth that has been steady if unspectacular. A recession is coming. Who can say when? But one will indeed come. And if Trump should be unlucky enough to be president when it comes, he will be blamed. And any good that he does will fall into the black hole of the harsh judgment of presidential history.

SMU and free speech

There are numerous reports again about limits on free speech on college campuses. In particular, conservatives are sometimes being heckled, protests are turning violent, and some appearances are even being canceled. There is a particularly nasty confrontation currently involving conservative author and speaker Ann Coulter and the University of California at Berkeley. The Coulter situation as well as several others of note are particularly sorry situations. There is trouble on the horizon when any university begins to limit speech.

Southern Methodist University does many things right, and one of them historically has been free speech. After several similar conflicts last year over free speech at various universities, I was invited to speak on the subject at the annual Robert S. Hyer Society induction ceremony on the SMU campus. The Hyer Society is the top honor society for undergraduates at SMU.  As noted in my remarks, students under consideration for Hyer Society membership were asked to write essays on free speech. The best essays were read by the students at the ceremony.  A separate file with my remarks can be downloaded here.  For convenience my remarks on the occasion, Feb. 28, 2016, follow:

First, let me congratulate all of the Hyer Society members here this evening, especially those being inducted.  You have attained an exceptional status at SMU, and you represent the very highest standard of academic achievement on this campus.  And to the parents and families, let me say thank you very much.  You have every reason to be proud of your daughters and sons, and we who teach them are honored that you have placed them with us for four of the most important years of their lives.

I suppose my favorite story on free speech would have to be one I read years ago in Vanity Fair magazine.  It was an interview with the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He noted in the interview that it was a story that circulated widely in Europe after World War II.  It was a story of two dogs, one French and one Russian, who meet in a park in Paris.  The French dog is curious about why the Russian dog has come to France.  “It must be because of our beautiful parks,” the French dog suggested.  “We have the best parks in the world.”  The Russian dog replied, “No, that’s not it.  We have very nice parks in Russia.”  “Well,” the French dog quickly added, “you must come here to meet our beautiful French female dogs.  They are gorgeous, you know.”  “No, that’s not it,” the Russian dog said.  “We have very beautiful female dogs in Russia.”  Somewhat exasperated, the French dog said, “Well, why do you come here?”  After a thoughtful pause, the Russian dog said, “I come here to bark.”

I have been honored to travel and work on free press issues in virtually every country in Latin America.  Free speech and freedom of the press continue under assault in several countries.  There is no question but that the vibrancy of any democracy depends on the freedom for all to speak and write free from the limits of government censorship, and often equally as important, self-censorship.  We have a long and cherished tradition in the United States, established in the First Amendment, but with a foundation in the robust exchange of ideas from the Enlightenment.  British poet John Milton is often credited with giving us the concept of the marketplace of ideas.  In his famed essay Areopagitica, first published in 1644, Milton said that if truth and falsehood are allowed to compete in the minds of citizens, truth will inevitably win out.  As we look at what we perceive as a lack of civility and even mean-spiritedness that pervade so much of our political discourse, we perhaps need be reminded that it’s all happened before.  Our founders understood that politics would be a full contact sport.  The name-calling we see has a strong precedent in several elections, but especially the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Jefferson won that election and became one of our greatest presidents.  The names that both men were called in that election would have made my proper Methodist mother blush, were she still alive.  I think it fair to say that Jefferson probably endured the most vicious personal attacks of any president in our history.  And in journalism we honor Jefferson as starting the tradition of the news media as a check on government.  He went so far in his second inaugural address as to say that any government that couldn’t stand up to criticism was a government that deserved to fall.  Out of that tradition has come more than 200 years of understanding and court decisions reaffirming that sharp, caustic debate, and yes, even completely offensive ideas, must be protected in a democracy.

We’ve all read the news accounts of some of the speech issues on some of our university campuses.  We’ve read of speech codes and the so-called “micro-aggressions,” statements that, intended or not, can trigger intense emotional reactions, often of a racially insensitive nature.  Let me be the first to say that despite so much progress on civil rights and expanding opportunities for historically oppressed groups, much remains to be done.  Especially for students of color on predominantly white campuses, full inclusion into the academic and social culture of university life in many cases is yet to occur.

I was asked several years ago by a prospective student if there were free speech zones on the SMU campus.  Honestly, I was taken aback.  It had never occurred to me.  I had read about some universities creating free speech zones, and I never liked the idea and never will.  To me, if you have free speech zones the implication would be that there are areas on a campus where there isn’t free speech.  I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the life of a university than to have any sense that speech is somehow limited.

SMU has a long and well-established history of free speech that many perhaps don’t fully realize. SMU today requires no religious affiliation for students or faculty, and religion is in no way part of our educational requirements for a degree.  But the free speech tradition has it roots in the founding of the university in 1911 by the Methodist Church.  The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a staunch advocate of free intellectual inquiry and of life experience being essential to Methodism.  Early Methodists in the United States were leaders in establishing institutions of higher education.  Today a number of distinguished universities, including SMU, still have direct ties to Methodism.  But Methodists were involved with founding a number of other universities that no longer have such ties.  And they are some of our best universities, including Vanderbilt, USC, Northwestern, and Duke.  John Wesley was a member of the clergy of the Church of England.  He was one of the great minds not only of theology but of social progress in 18th Century England.  His church provided a range of social services at clinics in London and Bristol, including free health care.  Just six days before his death in 1791, Wesley wrote his last letter to a young member of British Parliament named William Wilberforce.  The letter encouraged Wilberforce in his effort to abolish the triangle slave trade, at that time a significant part of the British economy.  In the letter, Wesley referred to slavery as “the execrable sum of all villainies.” Almost 20 years earlier, in 1774, John Wesley had joined the abolition effort in a public way with the publication of an influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon Slavery.  Wilberforce had made his life’s work the abolition of the slave trade, and he was finally successful in 1807.  In 1833, as Wilberforce lay on his deathbed, he learned that slavery had been abolished in all the British colonies.

One of the seminal moments in the tradition of free speech on the SMU campus occurred in the spring of 1958.  Willis Tate was the president of SMU, and unbeknownst to him, a student group had invited John Gates, an avowed Communist and former editor of the Daily Worker, to speak.  Tate only found out about the invitation by reading the SMU Daily Campus, and he was not pleased.

In his history of SMU titled From High on the Hilltop, Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry put it this way: “These were Joe McCarthy times and, in Dallas, John Birch times of ultra conservatism when SMU already seemed scary pinko to many.”  The “pinko” reference had been directed personally at President Tate by a columnist in The Dallas Morning News, and Tate had already been heavily criticized by the Ku Klux Klan for permitting the integration of SMU.  Once word circulated that Gates would speak on the SMU campus, civic groups were quick to criticize the event.  Even the SMU Mothers Club expressed opposition to the Gates appearance.

Tate withstood the firestorm and allowed Gates to speak on the campus.  In recalling the incident years later, Tate said he believed it essential for a university to serve as a marketplace of ideas.  Tate is remembered for his firm commitment to academic freedom as well as free speech, and the extraordinary speakers in the Willis Tate Lecture Series provide signature events each year on the SMU campus, benefiting not only SMU students and faculty but also the people of North Texas.

Four of our outstanding students will read their essays this evening.  All provide strong reasoning for free speech on university campuses.  Courtney Tibbetts cut right to the chase in her essay.  She wrote: “While it may not be pleasant, we have a right to offend others as much as we have a right to be offended.   The world can be cruel and offensive–students need to leave college prepared for that.”  Matthew Reitz wrote that open dialogue and frank discussion can address the root causes of hate speech in a way that no speech code can.  Katie Logsdon wrote that when universities such as SMU value diversity, it’s a given that not all will be in agreement with certain ideas that are expressed.  And yet, she notes that growth frequently comes from discomfort.  Chris Warley directly tackled the issue of “micro-aggressions,” noting that many such personal offenses can be avoided with honest, civil dialogue.  All four of these essays are highly nuanced to point out some of the difficult issues that remain in American society and on our college campuses.  And yet they recognize that only through sincere and candid conversation can true understanding emerge.  Each of these students in separate ways has recognized the essence of a university.

I know that you will enjoy hearing these essays as much as I enjoyed reading them.  They speak not only of thoughtful consideration of a complex issue, but also of an academic excellence celebrated through membership in the Robert Hyer Society.  Especially after reading these essays, I am pleased to conclude that free speech, and, yes, barking by both canines and humans, are not only permitted but encouraged on the SMU campus.  Again, congratulations to the students of the Robert Hyer Society and to your families, and thank you very much.