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Alito Says Leak of Ruling Overturning Roe Put Justices’ Lives at Risk

WASHINGTON — The leak of his draft majority opinion overruling Roe v. Wade put the Supreme Court justices in the majority at risk of assassination, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said during wide-ranging remarks in a public interview on Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative legal group.

“It was a grave betrayal of trust by somebody,” he said. “It was a shock, because nothing like that had happened in the past. It certainly changed the atmosphere at the court for the remainder of last term.”

“The leak also made those of us who were thought to be in the majority in support of overruling Roe and Casey targets for assassination because it gave people a rational reason to think they could prevent that from happening by killing one of us,” Justice Alito said.

He said the idea was hardly fanciful, noting an attempt on the life of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. A California man armed with a pistol, a knife and other weapons was arrested in June near Justice Kavanaugh’s Maryland home and charged with attempted murder. Among other things, the man said he was upset with the leaked draft suggesting the court would overturn Roe, the police have said.

Asked about proposals to expand the court, Justice Alito said that was a matter for Congress, though he added that roughly nine members seemed about right to him.

But he added what he said was a rhetorical question. “If Congress were to change the size of the court and the public perceived that the reason for changing the size of the court was to influence decisions in future cases that Congress anticipated the court may be deciding at some point in the foreseeable future, what would that do to public perception of our independence and legitimacy?” he asked.

Justice Alito, 72, is the member of the Supreme Court most likely to give formal talks laying out his positions, often in caustic and combative fashion. His colleagues, by contrast, generally favor conversations with friendly interlocutors when they make remarks in public.

The interview on Tuesday was in that second format, with Justice Alito answering questions posed by John G. Malcolm, a Heritage Foundation official. The justice’s tone was generally mild and cautious.

But he took strong issue with the state of free speech on college campuses.

“It’s pretty abysmal,” he said. “It’s disgraceful. It’s dangerous for our future as a united democratic country. We depend on freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is essential. Colleges and universities should be setting an example, and law schools should be setting an example for universities because our adversary system is based on the principle that the best way to get at the truth is to have strong presentations of opposing views.”

He added, “Law students should be free to speak their minds without worrying about the consequences, and they should have their ideas tested in rational debate.”

More generally, he said the First Amendment’s protection of speech was central to democratic self-government. “Any speech involving public issues — involving politics, government, history, economics, law, science, religion, philosophy, the arts, anything of that level of importance — the general rule has to be that the government has to stay out,” Justice Alito said.

He defended the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which allowed corporations and labor unions to spend money to support or oppose political candidates. He said the decision had been criticized for giving corporations First Amendment protections.

Without such protections, Justice Alito said, newspapers, cable outlets and entertainment companies owned by corporations could lose free speech rights. “If corporations did not have free speech rights and the government could regulate all of this as it wished — wow,” he said. “Who wants that regime?”

Mr. Malcolm reminded Justice Alito that he had dissented in a number of First Amendment cases in which the majority had protected videos of animal cruelty, hateful protests at military funerals, violent video games and lies about military awards, often by lopsided margins. The justice said the speech at issue in those cases had fallen within recognized exceptions to the First Amendment’s protections.

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