Veteran journalist lectures on Constitution

A seasoned journalist spoke about the U.S. Constitution, issues the Supreme Court of the United States is facing and whether the Constitution will remain what he calls an “inclusive document” in a lecture Sept. 16 in Ice Auditorium.
“We are talking about the future of the Constitution itself,” journalist Lyle Denniston said, in reference to the future of the Supreme Court in his lecture, titled “Future of the Supreme Court: Mirror of the Past?”
Denniston’s lecture dovetailed with Constitution Day, a day honoring the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.
“I thought [the lecture] was very insightful,” sophomore Kole Kracaw said. “It was nice to see some of the history of the Supreme Court tied in with a lot of the current issues being brought up.”
Denniston began the lecture talking about the history of the Constitution and the problems which arose from its opponents during its ratification and also how it ultimately rose to be our national document.
He continued to talk about the modern Supreme Court and some of its recent decisions and went into detail about the case of Bush v. Gore (2000).
He said that although the decision was disappointing to many, he firmly believed that the Court made the right decision in regard to the law.
“[It was] a court in the midst of a political circus, trying to be a court,” Denniston said of the TV coverage of the case which he described as frenzied, inaccurate and disrespectful.
Denniston concluded his lecture by talking about his concerns that the Constitution may become a document of exclusion because of a strong, conservative political movement.
He said he felt that Constitution is a document of inclusion.
“[It is] one that retains the openness necessary to include the Other,” he said.
He described “the
Other” as those who are different from “us,” Americans who share dominant cultural traits.
“One of my perceptions as a citizen, I guess as well as a journalist, is that we are going through another period in history, we’ve had them before, where there is a strong movement to exclude people from the accepted and approved community,” Denniston said. “We are dealing now with a very strong political movement against people who are different.”
He proceeded to give a number of recent examples of exclusion in America such as Florida pastor
Terry Jones’ threat to hold a mass burning of the Quran on Sept. 11, the country’s refusal to hold detainees of Guantánamo Bay in American prisons even after courts had ruled the detainees presented no danger to Americans and proposed legislation to take away the birthrights of children born of illegal immigrants in America.
He cited the rhetoric of the Tea Party and conservative movements, which aim to “take the country back,” as reasoning behind the title of his lecture.
“Taking our country back to what?” he asked. “What is it in our past that you want us to relive?”
In his lecture, he said he wondered if perhaps the members of the conservative movement wanted to return to a time before the civil rights movement, before workers formed unions or back to 1910, when then-Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer declared America to be a Christian nation.
“Where would the Constitution go … if the Supreme Court were to become a mirror of some past?” Denniston asked.
He also talked for a short while about mass media today and how the quality in its coverage of law has declined sharply in recent years.
He claimed it was if the style of sports coverage had taken over public affairs coverage.
While Denniston expressed disappointment in traditional news reporting, he also felt there was hope in the movement of journalism to the Internet. Internet-based journalism can be a form of citizen-journalism, he said.
At the end of his lecture, members of the audience asked questions about the personality of Chief Justice John Roberts, more on his opinion of Bush v. Gore and his predictions for what would become of Proposition 8 in California if the case came to the Supreme Court.
Kracaw expressed concern that the Constitution may become a document of exclusion.
“He’s right, that almost all of our social issues today can be boiled down to that one … question: Who’s excluded from the rights that our Constitution guarantees?” Kracaw said. “You can see it in everything from immigration, to gay marriage, to the new mosque and Muslim controversy. That was really cool that he identified that.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science Nick Buccola, who helped arrange Denniston’s visit to Linfield, also enjoyed the lecture.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Buccola said. “Because [Denniston]’s been covering the court for so long, it’s almost like he’s a part of the institution.”
Buccola said he thought Denniston was the perfect speaker for Constitution Day because of his reverence for the document and because of how critical he is of trends he finds troubling.
Denniston has more than 60 years of journalistic experience, 52 of those covering the Supreme Court, since he first started reporting for his local newspaper at age 17.
He’s reported for major newspapers along the East Coast, including The Wall Street Journal and The Baltimore Sun.
Still an active reporter, Denniston writes for a blog, called SCOTUSblog, that covers the Supreme Court, and he acts as moderator for Supreme Court and Constitution programs at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Denniston received a degree from the University of Nebraska and a Master of Arts in political science and American history from Georgetown University.
He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2005.
To read more of Denniston’s work, visit

Braden Smith/Managing editor
Braden Smith can be reached at

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