You would think that a sitting Supreme Court Justice would be treated with respect pretty much anywhere. But not at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where on Tuesday Antonin Scalia was forced to pick his way through crowds of jeering protesters just to get to his lecture.
Once inside, Justice Scalia spoke eloquently, lucidly and politely on originalism in constitutional law. Interpreting the Constitution as it was originally written, he argued, is the only way to restrain liberal and conservative judges alike from imposing their personal preferences on the country. Five out of nine unelected lawyers, Scalia said, should not be legislating for the entire nation. If the Supreme Court makes a mistake, the people can only rectify it by constitutional amendment.
Directed by their professors to believe that Scalia would engage only in "vitriolic name-calling," the audience was temporarily mollified. There were embarrassed looks as some of the less radical ones quietly removed their black armbands, and Scalia spoke without interruption for close to 45 minutes. During the question and answer period, some protesters tried to get the speech back on track with long-winded, accusatory questions (defying their own instructions to refrain from dialogue), but the speech ended without major incident.
The next evening, with Justice Scalia safely out of the way, the campus gathered for a "debriefing." Tony Marx, the newly inaugurated president of Amherst College, moderated the discussion, which quickly turned into an assault on the legitimacy of Scalia's presence on campus. Because President Marx allowed each person to speak only once, the four or five conservatives present, including political science professor Hadley Arkes, bore the brunt of the exchange.
Austin Sarat, the professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought who was one of the signers of the faculty boycott letter, delivered a long monologue. "The scope of legitimate debate on a college campus is narrower than in the world at-large," he declared. "Whether homosexuals are covered under the equal protection clause is not a debatable subject on a college campus." Furthermore, Professor Sarat announced, he did not find Antonin Scalia to have an "interesting mind." He would have much rather seen another justice, such as Sandra Day O'Connor, onstage.
Members of the College Democrats proclaimed that Amherst had exceeded the bounds of acceptable dialogue by inviting Scalia. Parroting the professors' letter of protest, they again condemned Scalia's alleged "vitriolic name-calling" and unwillingness to engage in reasonable dialogue. When asked about their curious silence on September 11, when Barbara Ehrenreich called President Bush a "moron" and expressed her fear that George W. Bush was going to "bomb a bunch of brown people," the Democrats changed the subject. The "discussion" then dissolved into a spat between the far-left and the moderate-left over whether Scalia violated Amherst's Statement of Respect for Persons. How strange that this endorsement of reasonable dialogue came from the same students who had been wearing black armbands and chanting profanities the evening before.
The only surprise of the night was that the professors and students finally said explicitly what campus conservatives have known for a long time. Dissent is legitimate, so long as it comes from the left. So much for a liberal education.