Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is said to have a brilliant legal mind, but you have to wonder how bright a guy can be if he has absolutely no sense of irony.
Scalia was in Cleveland yesterday to accept the City Club's Citadel of Free Speech Award, which the club said was in recognition of his staunch defense of the First Amendment. Richard Pogue, chairman of the award committee, cited Scalia's work on the 1989 decision overturning the conviction of Gregory "Joey" Johnson for burning an American flag during a 1984 demonstration in Texas.
We would agree that Scalia took an unpopular, yet constitutionally correct, stand in that case. It was not a decision that warmed the hearts of many of Scalia's conservative supporters.
On that basis, he earned the award. But he shouldn't have gotten it.
Why? Because one of the conditions Scalia placed on attending the luncheon at which he accepted the award was that there be no cameras and no recording devices.
When he made that demand, the club should have had the guts to say, "Sorry, Mr. Justice, if that's your policy, you're less of a defender of the First Amendment than we thought Maybe we'll be able to honor you another day for your defense of some other part of the Bill of Rights."
But the club didn't rise to the occasion. Instead, it barred the cameras and it abandoned its tradition of taping the awards for later cable broadcast.
And so they aided and abetted a Supreme Court justice in helping to make one segment of the U.S. press appear irrelevant. For this he gets an award?
A simpler day
Perhaps Scalia sees no contradiction in this, being a strict constructionist. Perhaps he reasons that since there were no cameras or tape recorders when the Founders wrote the Bill of Rights, he is free to do as he pleases.
Kathleen Arberg, spokeswoman for the court, said cameras and recording devices are banned from the Supreme Court chamber, and Scalia prefers not to have camera coverage in other settings.
Which is not to say that the City Club, or John Carroll University, where he appeared Tuesday, should accommodate him.
Fortunately there were pencils and paper and reporters in the 18th century, and so Scalia did not lock out all segments of the press.
Because of that, we know that one of the things he said is even more chilling than his camera ban.
The government, he said, has room to scale back individual rights during wartime without violating the Constitution. He implied that there was quite a bit of room. "The Constitution just sets minimums," Scalia said. "Most of the rights that you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires."
It is not particularly comforting that the latest Citadel of Free Speech Award winner thinks that most of the rights Americans enjoy are not inalienable, but are gifts subject to revocation by the government -- with the support of at least some members of the Supreme Court.