Roberts: Strong courts essential for free speech

Thursday, September 20, 2007

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In his first major discussion of the First Amendment as chief justice, John Roberts yesterday praised its deep roots and essential place in American life, but warned that it will need a strong judiciary to give it full meaning in the future.

Roberts spoke at Syracuse University in upstate New York, where he helped dedicate a new building of the Newhouse School of Public Communications. The structure is wrapped in the 45 words of the First Amendment, etched in glass.

“That text will surely endure, and not just on this building, long after we are gone,” Roberts said. The framers of the Constitution, he added, viewed free speech and open discourse as an essential part of the checks and balances they built into the structure of the government they were creating.

But Roberts warned the assembled university officials, faculty and students, “Do not think for a moment that those words alone will protect you.” He recited words similar to the First Amendment contained in the 1977 Soviet Constitution. “All lies,” Roberts said, adding that what gives the words force in the American system is an independent judiciary willing to protect unpopular speech through decisions enforcing the First Amendment.

The First Amendment has become a powerful restraint on government only because of judicial rulings, Roberts suggested.

Roberts then struck a familiar theme, stressing the importance of judicial independence: a judiciary unthreatened by political efforts to limit judicial power or to punish judges for unpopular decisions. He mentioned ongoing discussions among academics about limiting the terms of judges, including Supreme Court justices, and appeared to lump that idea in with other threats to independence.

But Roberts then used the occasion to make that theme of judicial independence less abstract, warning that the nation would regret the consequences of a weakened judiciary. “There can be little doubt that the First Amendment would be the first victim should the independence of our judiciary be curtailed.”

In separate remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the building (actually, an unfurled roll of newsprint was cut), Roberts also said the biggest threat to the First Amendment comes from those who use its freedoms irresponsibly. “Don’t blow it,” he told the audience.

In early reaction to Roberts’ speech, some commentators took him to task for focusing on judicial independence and missing the opportunity to say something more important about the First Amendment.