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Roberts Gets Lesson in Free Speech

In Chief Justice John Roberts' speech yesterday at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, he was expected to offer some lessons about free speech. Instead, he may have learned a lesson or two about speaking freely, judging by reaction to the speech. The chief was at Syracuse to dedicate the third building in the Newhouse complex, a building whose exterior prominently features the words of the First Amendment. From reports of those who attended, the message of his speech came down to this: the First Amendment means nothing without an independent judiciary to uphold it. From that followed this secondary message: Term limits for judges threaten judicial independence and therefore threaten the First Amendment.

Legal Times correspondent Tony Mauro, who blogged live from the speech, noted that the connection between judicial independence and constitutional safeguards has been made before, "but not in such a direct way." Mauro summed up the message in these words: "Roberts' message to First Amendment practitioners seemed to be: mess with the judiciary, and we may not be there to watch your back."

Also in attendance was Slate legal-affairs writer Dahlia Lithwick, who agreed with Mauro's summary of the message -- calling it "less a lofty sentiment than a shot across the bow" -- and who saw in the speech an abundance of irony. Just last week, she noted, Roberts taunted a University of Montana Law School audience with this reference to his need to avoid speaking freely: "Of course, what you would find most interesting is what I can't talk about." More to the point, she continued, was the inconsistency between Roberts' comments yesterday about protecting free speech and his opinion in the so-called bong hits 4 Jesus case:

"The chief justice doesn't explain today how twisting the ambiguous language of 'Bong hits 4 Jesus' into a pro-drug message in order to suppress it protects us from the tyrannical linguistic preferences of the ruling elites."

An even harsher view of the speech came from Newhouse's own Mark Obbie, director of the school's Carnegie Legal Reporting Program. At his LawBeat blog, Obbie called the speech a punt -- and a self-absorbed one at that:

"Everything he said is true, germane, and important. But also a terribly crabbed and egotistical take on the First Amendment. In short, you can thank me for your freedoms -- so don't join the judge-bashers."

Even The Daily Orange,  an independent Syracuse student newspaper, was critical of the chief justice in an editorial today, saying his speech "resembled the kind of talk parents use when begrudgingly granting their children privileges to stay up late." With all this backlash, the lesson for the chief justice may be: Next time, speak less freely.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on September 20, 2007 at 04:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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