Scalia gets smeared on school segregation

A false report that the Supreme Court justice said he'd vote against a landmark case makes the rounds

By Alex Koppelman

Published October 27, 2009 10:15PM (EDT)

A bombshell went off on the Internet Tuesday: At a recent event, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case, was wrongly decided and that he'd have voted against the majority on it. This was, obviously, a big story -- a sitting justice saying he'd vote against Brown? Plus, everyone knew Scalia was conservative, but who knew he was that conservative?

Turns out there's a good reason no one knew Scalia is so far to the right on the issue -- he's not. He does, in fact, believe that Brown was correctly decided. The newspaper reporter that said Scalia had criticized the decision got his facts wrong. But that didn't stop more than a few people from picking up the story before legal blogger and constitutional law professor Jack Balkin found video of the event and showed that Scalia had been misquoted.

There's plenty of unfair criticism about blogs out there, but this is one area where the critics are absolutely right. Because of the nature of the medium and the pace of the blogosphere's news cycle, too many bloggers prioritize speed over quality, and they get burned on stories like this one as a result. In this case outlets like Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine's Daily Intel blog and Political Wire, among others, all accepted the newspaper account uncritically and posted it.

Everyone gets a story wrong sometimes, there's no avoiding that. But in this instance, the bloggers who picked up the article could and should have avoided the situation. Scalia was never directly quoted saying something like, "I think Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided." The article, or at least this part of it, relied on paraphrasing. On a big story like this one, the lack of a direct quote demands, even more than usual, some stringent fact-checking. Before posting, it's just good practice to look for a primary source -- video, audio or a transcript from the event -- not to mention to check against Scalia's previous statements and even call the court for comment. It may mean you have to wait a few minutes, even a few hours, before posting what others already have, but it's better to be right than to be fast.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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