The Associated Press and the Hattiesburg American filed a lawsuit Monday against the U.S. Marshals Service over an incident in April in which a federal marshal erased reporters’ recordings of a speech Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave to high school students.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Jackson. Named as defendants are the Marshals Service, Deputy Marshal Melanie Rube and unidentified John Does.
“It’s been more than a month since this happened, and we’re still angry about it,” said Dave Tomlin, AP assistant general counsel. “People who enforce the law should know what the law is, and especially the basic law that says citizens can’t be shaken down by their own government.”
Don Hines, a spokesman for the Marshals Service in Washington, said Monday that while the agency was aware a lawsuit had been filed, “we have not seen it.” He added that by policy, he could not comment on pending litigation.
Scalia later apologized and also vowed he would make it clear in the future that recording his remarks for the use of the print media would not be a problem.
During the April 7 speech in Hattiesburg, a deputy federal marshal, identified as Rube, demanded that AP reporter Denise Grones and Hattiesburg American reporter Antoinette Konz erase recordings of the justice’s remarks. The reporters had not been told before the speech that they could not use tape recorders.
When the AP reporter resisted, the marshal took the digital recorder out of her hands. The reporter then showed Rube how to erase the recording.
Rube then reached across Grones and demanded that Konz hand over her tape. Konz surrendered the tape and, after the speech, was able to get it back only after she erased the recording in front of the marshal.
The exchange occurred in the front row of the auditorium while Scalia delivered his speech about the Constitution.
Nehemiah Flowers, the U.S. marshal for the Southern District of Mississippi, said later that the deputy’s erasure of the recordings was appropriate, given that one of the service’s responsibilities is to provide a traveling Supreme Court justice with security.
However, Flowers conceded that Scalia’s wishes that his remarks not be recorded should have been publicly announced before the speech.
Suit says erasures unconstitutional
He said the fact no announcement was made regarding Scalia’s wishes, “could have possibly been a faux pas on our behalf.”
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the seizure violated the constitutional and statutory rights of the plaintiffs, and seeks to bar the Marshals Service from a repeat of the incident.
The lawsuit contends the actions by the marshal “inhibited and interfered” with the ability of the reporters to gather, analyze and disseminate complete information to their readers. It says the act violated due process and the constitutional protections from unreasonable search and seizure.
U.S. Marshals Service Director Benigno G. Reyna, in an April 14 letter responding to a written complaint about Rube’s actions, said the agency would review the matter.
“Please be assured that we recognize and respect the protections and guarantees afforded to the media and all citizens,” Reyna wrote. “It is our intention to collect and review the facts regarding this incident and take necessary steps to ensure that we continue providing the highest level of service.”
Later, an official with the Marshals Service interviewed both Grones and Konz.
Gary L. Watson, president of the newspaper division of McLean, Va.-based Gannett Co., owner of the Hattiesburg American, said in a statement that taking legal action was necessary.
“It is ironic this seizure took place while Justice Scalia was making a speech about preserving the Constitution,” Watson said.
“Given the federal government’s very tough stance on those who violate the law, the Marshals Service and Deputy Rube must be willing to taste their own medicine,” Watson said. “An apology or a hollow commitment to study the issue will not suffice nor serve as a meaningful deterrent to prevent any repeat performances.”