Last week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—a centerpiece of the high bench’s conservative bloc—spoke at the University of Montana. Coverage of the softly publicized lecture was subdued, despite the judge’s relatively mighty stature in national politics. A few Missoula media outlets, in fact, refused to cover it in any substantive sense.
The reasons proved atypically political. Organizers informed an irritated press one week before the event of a few minor attendance stipulations—no broadcast recording devices; limited photographic opportunities; reporters would be quarantined to an area of the balcony and barred from posing any questions. To justify the restrictions, university officials stated the lecture intended to simulate a courtroom-like atmosphere.
“I believe all journalists know the difference between a Supreme Court hearing and a lecture open to the public in a public place at a public university,” wrote Ian Marquand, president of the Montana Society of Professional Journalists, in an e-mail to fellow media requesting a boycott of the event. “I believe we also know the difference between covering a lecture and attending a press conference.”
“We had really nothing to do with the restrictions,” UM spokeswoman Rita Munzenrider told the Indy. “It was something that the Supreme Court justice himself decided.”
U.S. Supreme Court press flack Kathy Arberg attributed the limitations imposed to Scalia’s “personal preference.” She elaborated that the justice’s terms are made on a case-by-case basis, but he often prohibits electronic media devices.
While it’s just one of a cavalcade of controversies trailing Scalia, his ardent self-defense of his personal privacy has triggered the most misadventures—not the least of which occurred in 2004 when U.S. Marshals illegally confiscated a reporter’s tape at a lecture in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Miffed media outlets here in Missoula each reacted in their own way to Scalia’s regulations. Montana Public Radio aired a segment on the controversy. CBS affiliate KPAX and Clear Channel’s KGVO boycotted the event outright.
The Independent attended but chose not to comply with the regulations. Our photographer was bounced and a reporter escaped the balcony and, intending to ask Scalia about the rules, reached the front of the microphone queue before the justice stopped taking questions.
In the spirit of rarely exhibited industry solidarity, we decline to discuss the topics of the lecture except to say this: Scalia’s address strongly criticized judges of the so-called “school of the living constitution” for overstepping their bounds in interpreting the nation’s highest document.
Clearly, placing interpretation of the First Amendment in the hands of U.S. Marshals is a more appropriate legal choice.