HSJ Headline News
From Justice Kennedy, a Lesson in Journalism
New York (N.Y.) Times
November 10, 2009
“We are not able to cover the recent visit by a Supreme Court justice due to numerous publication constraints,” the note said. It promised “an explanation of the regrettable delay” in the next issue.
It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy’s office had insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.
Kathleen Arberg, the court’s public information officer, said Justice Kennedy’s office had made the request to make sure the quotations attributed to him were accurate.
The justice’s office received a draft of the proposed article on Monday and returned it to the newspaper the same day with “a couple of minor tweaks,” Ms. Arberg said. Quotations were “tidied up” to better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey, she said.
Ms. Arberg indicated that what had happened at Dalton was unusual. “Justice Kennedy does not have a general policy for making such requests,” she said. “The request was most likely made by a member of his staff in an effort to be helpful.” Justice Kennedy declined a request for an interview.
Ellen Stein, Dalton’s head of school, defended the practice in a telephone interview. “This allows student publications to be correct,” she said. “I think fact checking is a good thing.”
But Frank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, questioned the school’s approach. “Obviously, in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech,” he said. Even at a high school publication, Mr. LoMonte said, the request for prepublication review sent the wrong message and failed to appreciate the sophistication of high school seniors.
“These are people who are old enough to vote,” he said. “If you’re old enough to drive a tank, you’re old enough to write a headline.”
Kevin Slick, The Daltonian’s faculty adviser, said in an e-mail message that “the high school administration communicated a lengthy list of ‘dos’ and ‘do nots’ for Justice Kennedy’s visit.”
The Daltonian “believed we could not publish anything without the approval of Justice Kennedy” or his office, Mr. Slick said, adding that “the series of constraints placed on his visit and subsequent interaction did not diminish the experience at all.”
The article itself, by Kristian Bailey, a Dalton senior and one of the paper’s editors in chief, is a straightforward account of Justice Kennedy’s biography and his wide-ranging remarks. The article is expected to be published in the paper’s next issue. Editors at The Daltonian either would not comment for this article or did not respond to requests for an interview, although a staff member provided a draft of The Daltonian’s article.
At the assembly, Justice Kennedy discussed the separation of powers, federalism, Isaac Newton (“the poster boy for the Enlightenment”) and George Washington (“the poster boy for the Constitution”), according to the article. One student quoted in the article expressed disappointment that Justice Kennedy had not had time to answer the written questions students had been asked to submit.
It is not unusual for Supreme Court justices to exclude the press entirely from public appearances. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for instance, spoke to more than 1,000 people at Yale Law School last month in an off-the-record session that was closed to the news media.
But Mr. LoMonte said the demand from Justice Kennedy’s office crossed a line.
“It’s a request that shouldn’t have been made,” he said. “That’s not the teaching of journalism. That’s an exercise in image control.”
Copyright 2009, New York (N.Y.) Times. Reprinted with permission