For those familiar with the principle of state nullification, it might conjure up thoughts of the Civil War or Southern oppression during the civil rights movement. But New York Times bestselling author Thomas Woods told an audience of conservatives, Tea Party supporters and students at Cline Library on Wednesday that those ideas are unfounded.
Woods was invited to talk about his recent book, "Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century," which encourages state governments to refuse to enforce laws passed down by the federal government that they see as unconstitutional.
"It is a check on absolute power because you can't expect the central authority to limit itself," said Woods. "Because of our history, it makes sense that it should be the states that do this."
The talk was sponsored by the W.A. Franke College of Business and other campus groups. Dennis Foster, a senior lecturer from the business college, said that he agreed with many of Woods' ideas.
"Checks and balances have been under assault since the formation of our republic," Foster said.
But he added that whether or not people agreed with that assessment, "the university campus is still a place for us to gather and debate the issues of our time."
BACK TO THOMAS JEFFERSON
The idea of nullification dates back to 1798, when Thomas Jefferson tried to use it to get rid of the Alien and Sedition Acts -- a series of bills that, among other things, made it illegal to criticize the president or Congress.
According to Woods, Jefferson proposed that the states had ratified the Constitution under the agreement that it limited the federal government's powers to those explicitly mentioned in the document. So, any law on an issue not in the document that was passed was automatically null and void.
"I believe that state nullification should be considered whenever the Federal Government oversteps their constitutional limits and violates the rights of the people," said Elisha Dorfsmith of local conservative group the Flagstaff Liberty Alliance, who was in attendance on Wednesday night.
Woods contends that colonists fought the Revolutionary War because the British parliament was changing the rules to fit their needs. He says that the U.S. Constitution was written to avoid that problem.
"Some people say the Constitution is a living, breathing document that changes with the times," Woods said.
But he rejected that argument and said that the document is dead, and any attempt to reinterpret it should be fought.
Woods has attracted national attention for his ideas about nullification in the past, with more than a few labeling him an extremist.
Several years ago, the New York Times devoted an entire editorial to chastising Woods for his bestseller, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History," calling him a "revisionist historian" and deriding him for a list of "dubious assertions."
The editorial also criticized him for saying that nullification "isn't as crazy as it sounds," and they called the idea "long-discredited."
Others have criticized nullification because it was used by Southern states during the civil rights movement to stymie the freedoms of African Americans, a charge that Woods admits. But he believes that shouldn't be an issue now that everyone has the right to vote.
"We're all being scammed by liars and shysters," Woods said. "This is a way of calling to the attention of the other states that there is a problem."
ONLINE FOLLOWING GROWS
While many discount nullification as a fringe idea, it has gathered steam amongst conservatives both in Arizona and nationwide since President Obama took office.
Woods takes some credit for reviving the somewhat obscure idea after giving a speech on nullification that he thought was just addressing an interesting and little-known aspect of U.S. history. He says that the speech was posted online and conservative and Tea Party groups linked to it. Before long, people were proposing using nullification to counter recent laws handed down by the federal government. It was that popularity led him to write the book.
Last month, a bill seeking to create a Joint Legislative Committee on Nullification of Federal Laws, passed the Arizona Senate before dying in the House. That bill would have allowed the Legislature to reject federal laws that it thought fell outside of U.S. government authority.
MORE ROBUST DEBATE NEEDED
"Federal drug laws are another good example of federal overstretch that can and should be nullified," Dorfsmith said. "Arizonans recently legalized medical marijuana, which is in direct violation of federal drug laws. That in itself was a form of nullification."
Other states have also tried to use nullification as a way to fight recent legislation, ranging from health care reform to the Endangered Species Act.
"In this country, though we act like we have a robust debate going on, we don't," Woods said.
The current debate is confined to a small box that's run by Republicans and Democrats and doesn't have the solutions to our country's problems, he added.
"That box has to be crushed and then set on fire, and then covered with salt so nothing grows there again."