The Washington Post

Law school dean regrets ‘censorship’ of Chief Justice Roberts visit

From left, Judge Anna Brown, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain and Justice John Roberts preside over Lewis & Clark Law School's first environmental moot court on Apr. 4. (Thomas Boyd/AP)

It was quite a coup for Lewis & Clark Law School to land Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to preside over its moot court competition earlier this month. But the event has not produced the kind of headlines that Dean Robert Klonoff had hoped.

Indeed, it is the lack of a headline — in the college’s newspaper the Pioneer Log — that has caused all of the trouble.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006. View Archive

Klonoff and administrators of the Portland, Ore., college pressured the paper’s editor not to publish a story about Roberts’s visit until the Supreme Court approved it. Deadlines passed, and the Pioneer Log went to press without a story about what it would have said was the “highest-ranking federal official to visit LC since President Gerald Ford came to Palatine Hill in 1975.”

Since the April 4 visit, it has been nothing but regrets and apologies about the “misunderstanding.” The court’s public information officer, Kathleen Arberg, said her office seeks approval of promotional materials about a justice’s visit, but not about news articles.

Klonoff declined to be interviewed about the episode, but sent yet another apology via e-mail.

“In hindsight, I should not have submitted the article for review by anyone, even the high court,” Klonoff wrote. “I have apologized to the students and learned a valuable lesson. I am committed to upholding the First Amendment, and I strongly value freedom of the press.”

It should be noted up front that there is no indication that Roberts asked for approval of the student story. His appearances at law schools have been heavily covered and broadcast — the Oregonian ran a piece about the Portland event — and there’s no reason to think that the chief justice of the United States was antsy about how he would be portrayed in the Pioneer Log.

But it might say something about the perception that the justices are different from other public officials when it comes to news coverage, as Klonoff’s “even the high court” comment indicates. A justice’s visit is especially prestigious for a law school, and deference is often extended even when not sought.

There is no hard and fast rule about covering the justices off the bench. Each of the nine sets the rules — sometimes by dictating terms of the coverage or forbidding any at all. Unlike most public officials, the justices do not even routinely make their public schedules known.

Several years ago, Regent University School of Law sent out a triumphant announcement that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. would be the keynote speaker at its 25th anniversary gala. But inquiring reporters were later told that the justice had decided against news coverage of his speech to more than 600 celebrants.

Justice Antonin Scalia generally closes his appearances to television cameras and allows reporters to bring tape recorders only for note-taking purposes. He apologized when overzealous federal marshals seized recorders from reporters at an event about a decade ago.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently barred coverage of an event she held in Washington with actress Rita Moreno. The two talked before a packed house of paying customers about their lives and new books. The Washington Post’s Reliable Source columnists were able to piece together a pretty full account, however, relying on Tweets from the crowd.

Sotomayor’s move was surprising because she has been tireless in promoting her memoir, “My Beloved World.” Justices most often relax their reluctance to talk with reporters when they are publicizing a book. Even press-shy Justice Clarence Thomas went on “60 Minutes” when his autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” was released.

Roberts was simply making one of his trips to different parts of the country when he went to Portland. Zibby Pillote, a 20-year-old Rhetoric and Media Studies junior from Bethesda who is the paper’s editor, said she and reporter Anthony Ruiz received no special warnings when getting credentials to cover the visit.

But when she called Klonoff’s assistant later to inquire about photos — the paper had not been given credentials for a photographer — she said she was told that the photos had not yet been approved by the court, and, by the way, the paper’s article needed to cleared as well.

Pillote and Ruiz protested strenuously enough that there was a threat to call the dean of students, Pillote said. When Klonoff finally sent the article to the court, with a note that said “Please let me know if it meets with your approval,” it was too late for the weekly paper to meet its deadline.

Pillote said she knew that the review seemed wrong, but didn’t know if she had options. The private college has control over its student publication, though its bylaws state, “The student press at Lewis & Clark is free from censorship and advance approval of content.”

Ruiz tipped off the Oregonian about the prior restraint. The court made clear it did not review news articles. Klonoff apologized. The Pioneer Log published Ruiz’s article online.

And the story finally appeared in last Friday’s paper, along with a commentary piece by Pillote and Ruiz.

Klonoff has hosted former justice Sandra Day O’Connor once and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy twice since becoming dean of his home town’s law school in 2007. He was a classmate of Sotomayor’s at Yale Law, partner in the Washington office of Jones Day and has argued eight cases before the Supreme Court.

Although he declined to describe himself as a friend of Roberts’s, the chief justice thinks well enough of him to have named him in 2011 as the academic member of the federal judiciary’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rules.

Klonoff said in his e-mail that he never expected the court to offer its views on the content of the article, but simply to sign off on proper titles and the like.

“I made the wrong choice,” he said.

Reviews of Klonoff’s actions have not been flattering.

Pillote wrote that there are lessons for all in the episode.

Hers is that “I definitely regret not just running the story.”

About this, she and Klonoff probably now agree.

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