Public Records Requests Shines A Light on Justice Barrett's Speech at the McConnell Center

Barrett's chambers, PIO, and the McConnell Center went back-and-forth over press restrictions.

|

Fix the Courts made a public records request to the University of Louisville. The organization received a 120+ page document dump concerning Justice Barrett's visit to the McConnell Center in September 2021. I went through the tranche of documents, and found a few items of interest. (FOIA dumps are generally sorted with the most recent emails at the top, so I usually start reading at the end).

There was a back-and-forth about press restrictions between the Public Information Office, and Gary Gregg at the McConnell Center.

First, on August 9, 2021, the Court's PIO office provided very strict conditions for the press--no still photograph!

If you would like to open the public event to media coverage, the Justice would like to follow these guidelines: Print press coverage only--no broadcast coverage and no still photography (including no still photograph by the McConnell Center). Recording devices are permitted for note taking purposes only, not for broadcast. Reporters should be seated in a separate section and should not participate in any Q&A with the audience, if any. The Justice will not be available for any interviews or press availabilities during her visit. Please make an announcement prior to the Justices's event asking attendees to refrain from cell phone photography or recording during the Justice's events.

Second, on August 19, 2021, Gary Gregg of the McConnell Center wrote back. He called the rules "draconian." He was right. These restrictions are completely out of whack with how public events are held. I think the prohibition on recording is foolish, but I get it. The Justice does not want to be played back on broadcast news. But a ban on still photography? As if every person in the room does not have a smart phone? Did these restrictions come from PIO or from the Justice? Maybe Art Lien could do a sketch.

Third, on September 7, 2021, Gregg asked if Barrett would take photographs with students and soldiers during private meetings. And Gregg asked if Senator McConnell and other VIP could get a photo. Apparently, this request caused some reconsideration.

Fourth, that same day, the PIO retreated, and issued revised press guidelines. Now, still photograph would be allowed for a few minutes:

Please note that we have revised the guideline for the Justices's public event to include limited still photography. Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to discuss. IF you would like to open the event to media coverage, the Justice would like to follow these guidelines: Still camera and print press coverage only. Recording devices are permitted for note taking purposes only, not for broadcast. Any still photographs should be limited to the first and last 1-2 minutes of the program. Reporters should be seated in a separate section and should not participate in any Q&A with the audience, if any. The Justice will not be available for any interviews or press availabilities during her visit. Photos taken at the public lecture by the McConnell Center may be used in association with news coverage of the event on the Center's website and social medial platforms. The McConnell Center photographer should also limit photos to the first and last 1-2 minutes of the Justice's public event. Please have a member of the McConnell Center staff ensure that the still photograph limitations are adhered to by all still photographers.

Photos taken by the McConnell Center at any other location during the Justice's visit, including her meeting with the McConnell Scholars and any private reception/dinner, maybe used for personal mementos only (not for publication, posting, or release). We understand the Justices's meeting with the McConnell Scholars is considered private, not open to press coverage. The Justice does not object to the proposed five group photos and to photos with VIPs if requested. All of these photos are for personal memento use only (not for publication, posting, or release).

By that point, the press conditions were set.

There were also several emails between Justice Barrett's chambers and Gregg. On June 17, 2021, Barrett's assistant asked:

She is wondering what the topic of the public lecture will be so that she can begin to think about what she will say.

On June 22, 2021, Barrett's assistant wrote back:

Also she'd really like to start thinking about the public lecture and wants to know how long the talk needs to be along, with a proposed topic.

 

On June 28, 2021 (the penultimate day of the term!), Justice Barrett's assistant offered these guidelines:

Justice Barrett will prepare short remarks (no more than 15-20 minute) followed by Q&A. She would like the questions submitted in advance and asked by a central questioner, or students/alums/audience could be chosen in advance to ask the questions. She does not want to field inappropriate questions in the moment.

This last sentence should have never been made in print. The assistant is conveying that the Justice personally asked to avoid "inappropriate" questions. And she made that request to the McConnell Center, of all places! The optics are awful. This is the kind of thing you say over the phone, and never in an email--especially with a public institution subject to FOIA.

On August 22, the assistant explained that the Justice wanted to personally vet the questions:

She would like to see the vetted questions just to be sure.


Again, this sort of statement should never be made in print. It looks awful for an assistant to write in a FOIA-able document the Justice wants to see "vetted questions" in advances. All Justices take screened questions, but usually the screener doesn't check with the Justice first.

Moreover, this sentiment is even more precarious in light of the actual remarks Barrett gave. According to press reports, Barrett said she was "concerned about public perception of Supreme Court." Did this sentiment arise from an "inappropriate" question? Or a question she vetted? Who knows? She prohibited recording, so we are stuck with trusting paraphrasing from reporters.

Finally, Justice Barrett's assistant uses emojis in emails.

Call me a snoot, but I am not a fan of smiley faces in emails from Supreme Court chambers.

NEXT: Pseudonymity and Near-Minors

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I get the condition that questions be asked by a moderator. That way you avoid the truly “inappropriate” questions (like when Scalia was asked if he sodomizes his wife), and you don’t have someone rambling through a nonsensical question for 5 minutes. But vetting the questions beforehand? What’s the point of a live Q&A then; it’s just for show.

    1. What’s the point of a live Q&A then; it’s just for show.

      No, it's the opposite of a show. That's the point. It's not a press conference. People should not ask reporters, and reporters should not acquiesce if they are asked, what questions will be asked. But this is private people getting to ask a speaker about topics that interest them, and the speaker choosing to address some of those topics. The idea isn't to see how quickly she can think on her feet in answering those questions, but to give out information that she's willing to give out.

  2. This does not seem like much of a story. The Justice has no intention of putting on a public dog and pony show, who cares? An assistant uses emojis? Welcome to the world. Suggesting all of this should have gone offline is over-the-top; one might as well suggest that corresponding with the Court is basically all for show and real discussions happen off the record. I personally don’t want that to be the case. Why should we encourage a pretend record?

  3. Josh, doing Josh.
    (Dog bites man, in other words. )

    1. Josh-hating commenters, doing Josh hating.

  4. Slow news week? This is the biggest non-story I've read in a while. Have you nothing better to do? Seriously, this is an embarrassment. Get a life, Josh.

    1. Says the guy who wastes a few minutes of his life reading something he knows he won't like, and another minute telling the author to stop wasting his time.

  5. She doesn't want activists in the audience to start making speeches and to disrupt the event

    1. That explains the moderator asking the questions, but not the demand to see the questions in advance.

      But the real scandal is the subject for her advocacy. It's one thing foe a Justice to make a pro-forma denial that he and his colleagues are partisan hacks, but it's just embarassing to make a whole speech denying the obvious.

      1. ...Blackman's first comment on this speech was a post denying that she'd said what she said despite his quoting a report saying that she'd said it. LOL!

  6. The organization received a 120+ page document dump concerning Justice Barrett's visit to the McConnell Center in September 2021. I went through the tranche of documents, and found a few items of interest.

    Which tranche did you go through?

    This is the kind of thing you say over the phone, and never in an email–especially with a public institution subject to FOIA.

    So it's OK to vet the questions, but that fact should be kept secret?

    1. Is it too much to ask that you follow the link which underlies the first three word of the article?

      Smh.

      I'll make it easier for you: https://fixthecourt-dot-yamm-track.appspot.com/Redirect?ukey=1VZ4D2jXh-BRPW7SvpYPuqxYkgHCMAgMR0W3A1rBkIQQ-0&key=YAMMID-11909133&link=https://fixthecourt.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/FTC-UofL-FOIA-Barrett-McConnell.pdf

      Never say that I am indifferent to the plight of the mentally handicapped.

      1. ..three wordS....

        And I see that I could have shortened the url, but that's Reason's atrocious commenting software striking again.

        1. I have no idea what your point is.

          Or maybe, like Blackman, you too don't know what the word "tranche" means.

  7. I don't know if Barrett actually did anything wrong, but Blackman seems to think she did - and this can't be explained by his shilling for Republicans.

    If so, explain the chain of reasoning?

    1. He's apparently an ACB worshipper, and she is falling short of the unreasonably high standards she, and her office, posesses in his imagination.

      See his risible first post on this speech, where he averred that she should never admit to any concern about what the public thinks of SCOTUS. It never occured to him that the implausibility of that denial might reflect badly on her.

      1. He posts so often, from time to time the law of averages suggests he might say something right, so I'm wondering if he did this by objecting to her restrictions on questions.

        And why was an FOIA request needed to learn the restrictions on questions?

        1. "...why was an FOIA request needed to learn the restrictions on questions?"

          B/c the lapdog media was too obsequious to report on it?

          1. Lapdogs for ACB? They must have had a night to remember with her.

            1. Ewww, that comment was wrong on so many levels.

              1. Yes it was.

                Their paychecks depend on their not being blackballed from thisa beat.

                And they are anyway courting her to be at least the next Kennedy on most issues. In that they have a good chance of success, IMHO. Her first non-action on the court was, after all, to not re-cert unconstitutional (b/c contrary to State Legislature -written laws) easing of absentee ballot rules with the excuse of COVID after it went 4-4 before her arrival on the Court.

  8. Other then some minor optics here I don't see anything of concern. This is a pirvate event and she would like it to remain so. And she is under no obligation to actually do the event either.

    Also given the "gotcha" press and hatred of the regressive media to the conservative justices I can't really blame her for wanting to control the event as much as possible. These are the same people that were obsessed with the fact that women in her religion wear plain underwear. Can't imagine why she wants questioned screened and asked by a moderator....

    1. This is exactly what I was about to say. Why in the world would she not want her kids seeing her in the news and on social media dressed in handmaids dress or some other nastiness?

Please to post comments