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College Row
Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia P’02

Scalia and Romero spark vigorous debate

In a year unusually crowded with noteworthy lectures, readings and performances, a pair of campus events made headlines this spring—not only for their substance, but also for the reaction they provoked among the campus community.

The lectures—by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia P ’02 and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero—were initiated by President Anthony W. Marx and funded by the Victor S. Johnson 1882-1943 Lectureship Fund.

“When I first arrived at Amherst last summer, I sent invitations to 15 prominent political and intellectual leaders, including three Supreme Court justices,” Marx explained. “It just so happened that Justice Scalia and Anthony Romero were the first to accept. My dream originally was that they would debate each other,” he laughed. Scheduling complications intervened, and the two delivered separate lectures, seven weeks apart.

Despite the non-debate format, interest in the lectures was high. More than 600 people packed Johnson Chapel on February 10 to hear Justice Scalia speak on “Constitutional Interpretation.” In a wide-ranging discussion of issues including the Second Amendment and gay marriage, Scalia positioned himself as a political, philosophical and social conservative and argued strenuously for an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. He described the 200-year-old document as“a rock with unchanging meaning,” not“a living organism” to be interpreted however one sees fit. “It’s originalism or nothing,” he insisted. “At the end of the road, the ‘living’ Constitution will lead to the destruction of the American Constitution. And you have seen the beginning of that.”

Many praised Scalia’s intelligence and wit. And even many who disagreed with his opinions were glad to have had the opportunity to hear him.

But not everyone approved, and objections to the associate justice’s appearance quickly became fodder for debate about appropriate forms of protest. After considering armbands, signs and a silent, stand-up protest during Scalia’s talk, a coalition of student groups opted instead to peacefully attend the lecture and distribute pamphlets outside the event. Two dozen protestors—mostly townspeople, including one in a duck costume—took a more traditional protest route, assembling on the campus’ Main Quadrangle to greet Scalia with chants of “Recuse!” and occasional quacks. (Scalia has insisted repeatedly—including during his Amherst talk—that a duck-hunting trip he took with Vice President Dick Cheney would not interfere with his ability to impartially hear a Supreme Court case in which the vice president is involved.) And 16 faculty members protested Scalia’s visit by staying away, noting in a letter to the Amherst Student, “We will neither ask questions nor debate Justice Scalia because we believe that the liberal ideas of constructive disagreement and debate only work when both sides act on these ideals in good faith. We will not offer a tacit endorsement of this man’s presence on campus.”

Dissent prompted further dissent. For several weeks after Scalia’s visit, talk on campus (in the student newspaper, the dining hall and many classrooms) focused on the invitation and reaction to it. Should the college provide a platform to someone whose legal opinions seem to conflict with fundamental principles (like diversity) to which the college has articulated a commitment? Can one effectively challenge a speaker in a format where the lecturer has the microphone and can more easily control the debate? Are boycotts an effective form of protest, or must one participate in a discussion in order to influence the outcome?

Reaction to Anthony Romero’s appearance at the end of March was tame in comparison. A lawyer, and the first Latino and openly gay man to lead the ACLU, Romero spoke at Amherst in late March, coincidentally less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to be at the Supreme Court. In a talk that covered many of the same issues Scalia’s had—including freedom of speech, gay rights and separation of church and state—Romero focused especially on the Patriot Act, arguing that Americans must remain committed to free speech and due process, especially in times of crisis, when dissent is riskiest. “I encourage you to engage each other,” he said. “Don’t take anything you hear as a given.”

The engagement, the questioning and the not-taking-anything-about-the-two-lectures-as-a-given seemed to please Marx, who already has invited a number of provocative political leaders and scholars to visit campus during the 2003-04 academic year. “We can’t afford to wall ourselves off from the debates that are raging beyond the campus,” he said, noting too that in engaging these debates the campus community “must hold itself to a higher model of how we interact with difficult ideas, and with those who feel differently about those ideas.

“There will always be a tension—on this campus and elsewhere—between freedom of expression and respect for persons,” Marx added. “Surely, that tension is a sign of intellectual vibrancy. When one walks into the Campus Center or the dining hall,” he said, “and hears vigorous debates about Justice Scalia’s views and his visit to campus—rather than conversations about where to party—that’s exactly how we want to engage our students.”

Next: Prof. Taubman receives Pulitzer Prize >>

Photo: Frank Ward

 

 
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