We're in the balcony of Hendricks Chapel on the campus of Syracuse University to watch Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. offer keynote remarks on the First Amendment. He's here to dedicate Newhouse III, the newest building in Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. As long as the technology holds out, we'll try to live-blog the address.
2:15: Roberts congratulates Newhouse for completing construction on time. Says the Supreme Court's renovation is behind. The motto of Court sub-contactors, he says, seems to be,"We're not happy until you're not."
218: Commends Newhouse family for long ties to the university. Glad to see that the new building is wrapped with the words of the First Amendment. "That text will surely endure, and not just on this building, long after we are gone."
2:20: First Amendment is only one part of the constitutional structure, says Roberts. Notes that in some countries, trials cannot be covered in the way they are in the US. "Foreign law can be quite jarring" in that respect. The First Amendment is subject to interpretation. Ultimate authority to do that job is with the Supreme Court.
2:25 Primary purpose of Constitution was to establish an effective government, and open public discourse serves that purpose as a check and balance on government. Summarizes the trial of John Peter Zenger. Trial reflected distinctly American view of free speech.
2:28 Of the First Amendment, Roberts says, "Do not think for a moment that those words alone will protect you." Notes words similar to First Amendment in the 1977 Soviet Constitution. "All lies." An independent judiciary is what makes the difference and gives the First Amendment its strength.
2:32: First Amendment not needed for trendy speech. Constitution provided for an independent judiciary, Roberts says, which has given vitality to the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech. This, says Roberts, puts First Amendment on the solid foundation of judicial independence.
2:35: Roberts says he is surprised to see proposals for term limits for judges (including justices of the Supreme Court,) and seems to lump those proposals in with other threats to judicial independence. First Amendment would be the first victim if judicial independence is diminished. You may not always agree with our interpretation of the First Amendment, Roberts says, but it is the judiciary that will protect the First Amendment.
UPDATE: Following these remarks at the chapel, Roberts led a procession of university officials, faculty and students, down to the plaza in front of the Newhouse building for the ribbon-cutting. On the way, one protest sign we saw was clever and pointed, given Roberts' ruling in Morse v. Frederick in June (ruling that a high school principal did not violate the First Amendment when she ordered a student to take down banner that read "Bong hits 4 Jesus.) The poster read: "Bong Hits 4 Roberts." Actually, Roberts and others cut an unfurled roll of newsprint, not a ribbon. In brief remarks, Roberts said the biggest threat to the First Amendment was those who use its freedoms irrresponsibly. "Don't blow it," Roberts told the assembled crowd.
The takeaway from Roberts' earlier remarks seems to be his stark linkage between judicial independence (yes, an old theme) and the First Amendment: namely, that a weakened judiciary (or even a judiciary with less than life tenure) will be less able to safeguard the First Amendment. That too has been said before, but not in such a direct way. In other words, Roberts' message to First Amendment practitioners seemed to be: mess with the judiciary, and we may not be there to watch your back.