A soon to be released 650-page biography of Antonin Scalia reveals some interesting tidbits about the Justice and his career as it relates to free speech. The book is titled Scalia: A Court of One (Simon & Schuster, June 10, 2014). Bruce Allen Murphy, the Fred Morgan Kirby Professor of Civil Rights at Lafayette College, is the author of this heavily-researched and well-documented new biography. Professor Murphy’s previous judicial biographies include The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court Justices (1982), Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice (1988), and Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas (2003).
Tellingly, the yet-to-be-distributed book has already been praised and criticized. That said, Murphy’s biography affords a new opportunity to revisit the history of Justice Scalia’s interaction with the First Amendment, both before and during his career on the Court. Readers of this column will recall Scalia’s recent call for law schools to place more emphasis on teaching the First Amendment. Recall, too, the Justice’s repeated criticism of the holding in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
Turning back the biographical clock, and as Professor Murphy recounts it, in January of 1971 Antonin Scalia (he was 35) went to work as general counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy. During Scalia’s tenure there President Nixon “became convinced that the national news and public affairs division of the Public Broadcasting Service . . ., which depended on government funding, was an ‘enemy’ group staffed by relentless liberal journalists. Nixon decided to try to take control of this agency, or, if he could not, to destroy it by cutting off its funding.”
Sometime later, word reportedly came down from the Nixon White House to “get a particular PBS station off the air.” According to an OTP official then working there, “Nino said, ‘hell, write back a memo that says it’s illegal.’ While Scalia acknowledged that [the purported illegality] was not true, he added, ‘Hell, they don’t know that.'” Subsequently, the OTP official “told a reporter that he did precisely what Scalia recommended and the White House soon dropped the issue.”
To be sure, there is more to this story, but I refer readers to the Murphy’s biography to learn how the matter ultimately played out, politics and all.
Before leaving the Murphy biography, readers might be interested to know that he devotes a chapter (#8) to the originalist debate over the meaning of the First Amendment as interpreted by then Circuit Judges Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia in the case of Ollman v. Evans (1984).
More on Justice Scalia
Speaking of Justice Scalia and free speech, the following is a list of his First Amendment free expression majority opinions authored during his tenure on the Roberts Court. Notice the vote margin when he is assigned to write for the Court.
- Davenport v. Washington Educ. Association (2007) [vote: 9-0]
- United States v. Williams (2008) [vote: 7-2]
- New York State Bd. of Elections v. Lopez Torres (2008) [vote: 9-0]
- Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011) [vote: 7-2]
- Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan (2011) [vote: 9-0]
→ Aside: Coming in 2015: A play titled “The Originalist”
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