JACKSON, Miss. — The U.S. marshal for the Southern District of Mississippi on Friday defended the erasure of two journalists' recordings of a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia but suggested that Scalia's request that his remarks not be recorded should have been publicly announced.
During Scalia's speech about the Constitution on Wednesday in Hattiesburg, a woman who identified herself as Deputy Marshal Melanie Rube demanded that a reporter for Associated Press erase a digital recording of the justice's comments.
The reporter, Denise Grones, initially resisted, but later showed the deputy how to erase the recording after the officer took the device from her. Rube also made a reporter for the Hattiesburg American erase her tape.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that the deputy violated the law and "the fundamental tenets of press freedom."
But Rube's boss, U.S. Marshal Nehemiah Flowers, defended the deputy's actions, saying Friday that one of the service's responsibilities is to provide a traveling Supreme Court justice with security.
"The justice informed us he did not want any recordings of his speech and remarks, and when we discovered that one, or possibly two, reporters were in fact recording, she took action," Flowers told Associated Press.
"Even with hindsight, I can't think of what other steps she could have done," Flowers said.
Scalia spoke Wednesday at Presbyterian Christian High School and at William Carey College. He did not warn the high school audience that recording devices would be forbidden, but issued a warning before the college speech.
Flowers said the fact no announcement was made at the high school regarding Scalia's wishes "could have possibly been a faux pas on our behalf."
"It would have been handled, on hindsight, a little bit different," he said.
In a letter to Flowers and to U.S. Marshals Service Director Benigno G. Reyna and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, the reporters group said the deputy violated the Privacy Protection Act. The act says government officers may not seize journalists' materials.
AP and three other organizations also sent a letter protesting the marshal's conduct.
The letter demanded an explanation, potential sanctions and details of what steps would be taken to ensure that such action was not repeated.
A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court said it was up to Scalia and his staff to set guidelines for coverage of his events.