KONZ | Reflecting on the day I crossed paths with U.S. Supreme C - WDRB 41 Louisville News

KONZ | Reflecting on the day I crossed paths with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I was 26 years old, and I had only been a full-time journalist for two years on April 7, 2004.

As the education reporter for the Hattiesburg American, the small daily newspaper in Hattiesburg, Miss., I was assigned to cover two speeches by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- the first during a convocation at William Carey College, the second was a speech to teenagers at Presbyterian Christian High School.

Scalia's first speech at the college was about the religious clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The college had asked that no one video or audio record his message.

It was a very hard speech to understand. I was sitting next to Denise Grones, then a reporter for the Associated Press. To say that we both were overwhelmed by his words is an understatement. After the event, we were thankful he had another speech planned because we had no idea how we were going to quote him and what our stories would say.

About an hour or so later, we arrived at the high school. Aside from the high school students, there were lots of community members who had gathered in the gymnasium to hear Scalia speak.

Scalia's topic: The First Amendment. Particularly, the freedoms that are granted to Americans in the First Amendment. There had been no announcement to not record his speech, a relief to me because I wanted to make sure I was quoting him correctly.

Grones and I were sitting in the first or second row with no one in front of us. Our tape recorders were out in plain view. Forty-five minutes into the speech, we were approached by a deputy U.S. Marshal, who had asked if we were recording and then told us that it wasn't allowed.

The marshal took Grones' recorder, a digital one, and within seconds, his entire speech was erased. My tape recorder had an actual cassette tape in it. The marshal took the tape from me and walked off with it. Scalia was still at the podium talking about the First Amendment.

Immediately following his speech, I made a beeline to the deputy marshals and told them I needed my tape back. I was very clear -- they were preventing me from doing my job as a journalist by taking my materials.

One of the deputy marshals said she would talk with her supervisor and come back to talk to me. When she came back, she told me I could have the tape back but that I would have to record over it. All 45 minutes of it.

She watched as I started to record over it. The marshal left after about 10 minutes, so I stopped recording over it.

I was embarrassed, and I was upset. No, I was furious. I had never really felt that any of my rights had ever been violated -- yet here I was at a speech by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and my rights had just been trampled on by a federal officer. At the time, I had no idea if Scalia ordered it or if the deputy marshal acted on her own accord.

By the time I drove back to the newsroom, it was already all over the wire -- and the national media picked it up quickly. But I still had a story to write. One that I had become the subject of. It was not an easy task.

I wrote my story, I talked to reporters and appeared on national TV. And then I went on vacation.

Three days later, I was on boat off the Mississippi Gulf Coast when my editor, Jon Broadbrooks, called me. He told me that the word in the media world was that Scalia had written Grones and I personal letters and put them in the mail. Scalia would not disclose what he wrote to the media.

The next day, the letter arrived in the newsroom. In the letter was an apology and an explanation of how it happened.

He provided a background of his policy of refusing radio or television coverage of his appearances and his refusal to provide personal interviews by any media.

"It has been the tradition of the American judiciary to not thrust themselves into the public eye, where they might come to be regarded as politicians seeking public favor," Scalia wrote to me.

He explained that there had been a misunderstanding by the deputy marshals at the high school.

"I abhor as much as any American the prospect of a law enforcement officer's seizing of a reporter's notes or recording," he wrote. "The marshals were doing what they believed to be their job and the fault was mine in not assuring that the ground rules had been clarified. (To tell the truth, even if the rules had been broken, I would not have wanted the tape erased)."

Scalia wrote that he "learned a lesson (at your expense) and shall certainly be more careful in the future."

"Indeed, in the future, I will make it clear that recording for the use of print media is no problem at all," he wrote. "Please accept my apology for what happened."

His rare letter of apology to a reporter again made national news. Many figured he wrote it to cover himself so that he would not be sued.

I felt the letter was sincere. I knew Scalia had a turbulent relationship with most media, but I appreciated that he took the time to send me a letter. And that he apologized.

Gannett (the company I worked for) and the Associated Press ended up suing the U.S. Marshal's Service. The lawsuit was settled within a few months, with the government agreeing that the federal Privacy Protection Act forbids the seizure of the work of a journalist.

The court filing included a statement by Gerald Auerbach, general counsel for the Marshals Service, that the agency had formulated a policy limiting "the role and duties of deputy United States Marshals assigned to provide security to federal judicial officers appearing at public and private events."

The Justice Department, in admitting their officer had been wrong, also said that Grones and I (as well as our employers) were each entitled to $1,000 in damages. They also paid the legal fees.

Shortly after the lawsuit settled, I received a phone call from the Newseum in Washington, D.C. They asked if I still had the tape and the recorder and if I'd be willing to donate them, as well as a copy of the letter, for a First Amendment exhibit at the museum. I happily obliged.

I'm not sure if anyone knows that the remainder of Scalia's speech from that day is still on that cassette tape. I only erased the first 10 minutes when the deputy marshal was standing over me.

Two years ago, I was reunited with the tape when I was in Washington, D.C., and visited the Newseum.

I'm extremely honored and proud to be featured in a display about the First Amendment and for being part of a lawsuit that changed policies of not just a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, but also the U.S. Department of Justice.

Like many Americans, I was saddened to learn of Scalia's passing Saturday. Regardless of his rulings, he served this country for a very long time.

Many of you may not know this, but I actually first met Scalia in 2000 when I was a criminal justice and journalism major at the University of Southern Mississippi. I was a member of Lamda Alpha Epsilon and Scalia was the keynote speaker for our annual banquet. At one point, I was on the same stage as he was. I still have a picture of he and I from that day.

I had no idea that four years later, he would be part of a pivotal moment in my young career.

As I told my son that day in the Newseum, it's not every day that a journalist gets to teach a U.S. Supreme Court Justice a lesson.

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached @tkonz on Twitter or at (502)585-0838.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dies at 79

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