In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft and high-level U.S. Marshals, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press condemned the actions of marshals who ordered two reporters to erase recordings of a speech made by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the Presbyterian Christian High School in Hattiesburg, Miss., on April 7.
According to press reports, Deputy U.S. Marshal Melanie Rube forced reporters from The Associated Press and The Hattiesburg American to erase their recordings.
“Even assuming it was reasonable for Justice Scalia to prohibit recordings of his speech — which it was not — the law does not allow law enforcement officials to seize work product from journalists under these circumstances,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “Perhaps one of these days, Justice Scalia will tell us why he has so little regard for electronic media. Certainly the only effect the tape recordings by two print reporters would have had on coverage of his speech would have been to make the reporting more accurate.”
Justice Scalia has a track record of banning electronic coverage of speeches where he addresses the majesty of the U.S. Constitution. In March 2003, he prohibited televised coverage of his appearance at The City Club of Cleveland, where he received “The Citadel of Free-Speech Award” honoring his support of the First Amendment. During Wednesday’s speech, Justice Scalia told students that the constitution’s true meaning must always be protected. Calling the constitution “a brilliant piece of work,” he told a full auditorium that “People just don’t revere it like they used to.”
“The justice told his audience yesterday that he spends most of his time thinking about the constitution,” Dalglish said. “Perhaps he wasn’t thinking about it enough on Wednesday. The First Amendment is part of the constitution.”
In the letter, the Reporters Committee pointed out that “the actions taken by the federal marshals not only violate fundamental tenets of press freedom, but directly violate the policy set forth in the Privacy Protection Act” and Justice Department guidelines on requests for information from the news media. The Marshall’s Service is a division of the Justice Department.
“This is a serious situation that requires attention to ensure that all members of the Justice Department are aware of the Privacy Protection Act policy regarding searches and seizures involving a member of the news media, as well as the Department’s own guidelines on subpoenas to members of the news media,” the committee argued. “While the Mississippi situation did not involve a search warrant or a subpoena, it should go without saying that the protections granted for those situations apply with equal or greater force in situations of even less urgency.”
The letter can be found on the Reporters Committee’s Web site at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20040408-scaliams.pdf