Published Online: April 21, 2004
Published in Print: April 21, 2004, as Federal File

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On the Record

Barrett L. Mosbacker, the headmaster of Presbyterian Christian School in Hattiesburg, Miss., always intended this month’s visit to his school by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to be a learning experience for his students. He never imagined just how educational it would turn out to be.

Antonin Scalia

At Mr. Mosbacker’s invitation, Justice Scalia delivered a speech and took questions from students in the private school’s gymnasium on April 7. An unexpected dose of drama was added to the occasion when, during his half-hour speech, a deputy federal marshal confronted two news reporters and demanded that they erase tape recordings of the media-wary justice’s remarks. The episode touched off widespread news coverage and commentary in the ensuing days.

Before Justice Scalia’s visit, teachers at the 800-student school had prepared students with lessons on constitutional law. The entire senior class was required to read A Matter of Interpretation, a 1997 book in which the justice lays out his arguments for interpreting statutes and the U.S. Constitution by focusing strictly on their texts.

"When he spoke, they were very well informed and asked very probing questions, I thought," Mr. Mosbacker said.

Justice Scalia’s visit was the first in what Mr. Mosbacker hopes will become a series of nationally prominent speakers at the school. "We really want our students exposed to intellectual rigor," he said.

But the furor over the tape recordings exposed students to more than Mr. Mosbacker had bargained for.

Justice Scalia later apologized in writing to the two reporters, and he clarified his position on recordings of his speaking engagements in a letter to a leading advocacy group for journalists. Some commentators criticized him for extolling the Constitution while adopting a policy that they regard as restricting the constitutionally protected freedom of the press.

The debate sparked plenty of stimulating follow-up discussions for students and teachers at Presbyterian Christian, Mr. Mosbacker said last week.

"Justice Scalia may not think so, but the fact that the controversy erupted was also a lesson," the headmaster said. "The lesson expanded."

—Caroline Hendrie

Vol. 23, Issue 32, Page 24

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