From The Argives: Justice Blackmun Charms Wes

Tickets to Justice Scalia’s Hugo Hugo L. Black Lecture on Freedom of Expression went on sale this past Thursday, and what a madhouse it was: tickets were snatched up in minutes, and the real debate ought to concern whether or not more than 175 seats should have been reserved for students. (As one disgruntled commenter opined: “Students should have been allotted at least half of the tickets. We go here.” I can understand the need for quotas, but in terms of numbers I can also strongly concur.)

I posted that Scalia, whose lecture will be simulcast all ’round campus, is the first Supreme Court justice to speak at Wesleyan in recent memory. By which I apparently meant 19 years: turns out the late Justice Harry Blackmun gave the second Hugo L. Black in Crowell Concert Hall on January 27, 1993—one week after Bill Clinton took the oath of office (Blackmun expressed open optimism) and three days after Thurgood Marshall succumbed to heart failure (Blackmun conveyed great sadness).

The Hugo L. Black Lecture series was initiated by Leonard S. Halpert ’44 in the early 1990s; Blackmun’s speech was the second such lecture. Scroll on for extensive Argus coverage of the speech. As the Argus reported in anticipation, “Blackmun, now eighty-four, is slated to speak at the university amidst much media speculation that his retirement is imminent now that Democrat Bill Clinton is in the White House.” (In fact he retired about a year and a half later, in August 1994, when Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer in his place.) Ticketing worked more or less the same as it does now, except I don’t see any reports of frantic sleepovers in Davenport office rooms:

Free tickets to the event are limited to two per person and are available at the University Box Office in the Campus Center, beginning today for Wesleyan employees and tomorrow for students.

According to News Editor Keith Donoghue ’95, Blackmun’s speech was “as much a fond recollection of good friends as an exposition on legal issues.” Blackmun was no Scalia, though (this is the guy who authored Roe v. Wade and, upon retirement, was widely regarded as the Court’s most liberal judge), and his spirited defense of First Amendment rights was an easy match for the Crowell audience:

Blackmun also lent clear support to President Clinton (“I’m a lot more hopeful than I was four months ago” garnered some laughs) and read from bitter hate mail during the speech. As for the president by whom the judge was appointed:

“I’ve never seen Mr. Nixon since I was appointed, and would hesitate to get in the same room as him. I’m afraid.”

Abortion rights cast a major shadow over the justice’s speech: Blackmun called Roe v. Wade “a decision that I will carry to my grave,” expressed optimism that the decision would remain in place during Clinton’s administration, and discussed eerily familiar legal issues surround family planning clinics:

Blackmun characterized abortion speech as an issue of preserving free information for those dependent on federal funding. He voiced his dissent of the 1991 Rust v. Sullivan ruling, in which the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “gag rule,” which prohibited federally funded family planning clinics from advising women on abortion.

It was on the issue of federally funded family-planning clinics that Blackmun tacitly lauded Clinton for an executive order lifting the gag rule.

If the newspaper coverage is any indication, students found the event undoubtedly worthwhile, though some “preferred the atmosphere of the informal discussion Blackmun held with about fifty students earlier in the day in PAC 002.” No surprise—why no smaller Q&A session for Scalia?

Read the full article here and here, or scope Courant coverage at this link.