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Justice delayed

November 11, 2009 |  1:24 pm

Maybe it's because I'm a long-ago high school newspaper editor, but I was shocked and appalled (nobody is ever shocked but not appalled) by a New York Times report that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy -- "widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values" -- insisted on reviewing and tweaking an article about his appearance at a private school in New York. The student newspaper at the Dalton School published a tantalizing editor's note saying: "We are not able to cover the recent visit by a Supreme Court justice due to numerous publication constraints."

Then I read the Times article again and discerned some shades of ethical gray. It's true, as Frank D. LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center said, that "in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech." But apparently Kennedy's purpose wasn't to vet the article as a whole but to reconsider the felicity of some of his phraseology.

It wasn't clear whether he made this request in advance. But if he did, and the agreement was confined to allowing him to polish his prose, I'm less shocked but still somewhat appalled. My own practice as a reporter was to refuse at the outset to show my completed story to an interviewee. As for quotes, I never would allow someone to retract or rephrase an answer because of second thoughts about its political effect.

But I made an exception when I did a series of interviews with prominent intellectuals. One law professor, in explaining his constitutional philosophy, used an analogy in reference to the Constitution. He later called me to suggest a different analogy that he said more precisely made his point. I let him change it, because the whole purpose of the piece was to let him present his thinking in his own words.

The difference here is that the Kennedy story was an account of an event at which an audience heard the justice's original words. That tips the scales of journalistic justice. Kennedy said what he said; if he wanted to correct it, he should have written a letter to the editor.

Actually, there's a precedent. Last year the court ruled that the death penalty couldn't be imposed for rape. Writing for the court, Kennedy cited as proof that the penalty was cruel and unusual the fact that, while 26 states and the federal government, had the death penalty, "only six of those jurisdictions authorize the death penalty for the rape of a child." After the decision, a blogger pointed out that the Uniform Code of Military Justice allowed the death sentence in the rape of a child, a fact the court had overlooked

The court added a footnote rectifying its omission -- but it didn't blot out the original language.

--Michael McGough

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