On Wednesday I discussed Christine O’Donnell’s gaffe-that-wasn’t, when O’Donnell asserted (correctly, of course) that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the First Amendment. I thought that the incident showed that Chris Coons (her opponent), the students at Widener Law School, and the Associated Press didn’t understand how recently (1878) the Supreme Court introduced the doctrine of separation of church and state.
In regards to the Associated Press, I may have been wrong. It now looks as though the AP might have understood perfectly well what O’Donnell was trying to say, but deliberately obscured her point.
When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O’Donnell asked: “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?”
(Emphasis mine.) This quote leaves unclear exactly what O’Donnell was referring to, and it lends itself to the interpretation that O’Donnell was unaware that the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on church and state is anchored in the First Amendment. (That, of course, was the thrust of the original article, before the AP re-wrote it.)
But that’s not what O’Donnell said. In the re-write, the story reads:
She interrupted to say, “The First Amendment does? … So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ is in the First Amendment?”
(Emphasis mine.) So it turns out that O’Donnell actually had been careful to make her point precisely. The AP writer edited the quote to declarify it, in order to make it fit the desired narrative.
To put it bluntly, the AP lied. What they put into the quotation marks isn’t what O’Donnell said.
They did later re-write the article, but they didn’t post a correction, which seems like a minimum they should do when their original article was a lie, and neither did the Washington Post, which ran the story.
POSTSCRIPT: I want to pile on a little more here. The original article also had this:
Her comments, in a debate aired on radio station WDEL, generated a buzz in the audience.
“You actually audibly heard the crowd gasp,” Widener University political scientist Wesley Leckrone said after the debate, adding that it raised questions about O’Donnell’s grasp of the Constitution.
This immediately followed the falsified quote. Again, it contributed to the story’s narrative: if the audience gasped, O’Donnell’s statement must have been shocking.
But in light of the real quote, the gasp seems awfully peculiar. Were the students at Widener Law School really shocked to hear that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment? What kind of law school are they running there?