Below is my column in USA Today on the withdrawal of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas from the faculty at George Washington University. The announcement merely said that Justice Thomas was now “unavailable” to teach. While the decision is being celebrated by both GWU and across the Internet, it is only the latest blow to free speech and the struggle to preserve a diversity of viewpoints in higher education. When the university announced earlier that it would not fire Thomas, I wrote a piece expressing doubt about how that victory would play out in the future to protect free speech on campuses. The cessation of teaching the course only magnifies those concerns. Such withdrawals raise the concern over the “unavailability” of a diversity of thought in higher education.
Here is the column:
After 11 years, students at George Washington University Law School will register for courses this fall with one notable difference. They will no longer be able to take a seminar with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
The removal of Justice Thomas from the list of lecturers followed a cancel campaign that demanded that the university ban him from any classrooms. At 74, and looking at an upcoming term of major decisions, Thomas hardly needs the aggravation of such protests. However, his departure (even if temporary) is a great loss to students, the law school and free speech.
In a petition, Justice Thomas (and his wife) were denounced as “actively making life unsafe for thousands of students on our campus.” The impetus for the campaign was clearly the recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which critics charged “stripped the right to bodily autonomy of people with wombs” and called on faculty and students to “kick Clarence Thomas out of Foggy Bottom.”
While the university refused to terminate Thomas, the campaign continued and protests were expected in the fall. Now many are celebrating the departure as a triumph, but it is only the latest example of how dissenting viewpoints are being systematically eliminated in higher education.
Indeed, the contrast could not be greater this week as recently retired Justice Stephen Breyer was welcomed on the Harvard Law faculty. No protests. No cancel campaign over his liberal decisions.
Breyer’s return to Harvard, where he graduated and once taught, will be interesting. This liberal icon might now be considered a virtual moderate on a faculty that largely runs from the left to the far left.
A new survey report, conducted by The Harvard Crimson, revealed that 82.46% of faculty surveyed identify as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Only 16.08% identified as “moderate” and a mere 1.46% identified as “conservative.” Not a single faculty member identified as “very conservative,” but the number of faculty identified as “very liberal” increased by another 8% in just one year.
Thomas’ withdrawal fits with a long pattern of cancel campaigns, which often take two tracks. First, they seek the termination of faculty with dissenting views. However, tenured or high-profile figures may be more difficult for a university to fire. Few of us believed that a sitting Supreme Court justice would be banned from teaching at the law school.
However, if termination is not possible, these campaigns try to push targets to resign by making their continuation on campus increasingly intolerable.
Recently, a campaign at Georgetown University successfully prompted a law professor to resign. Center for the Constitution Director Ilya Shapiro was suspended because of a single controversial tweet. And while Shapiro was cleared after a long investigation, the law school’s tepid support showed he couldn’t expect much of a future at Georgetown.
Even tenured professors can have enough. Recently, UCLA anthropology professor Joseph Manson resigned after
After decades of teaching, he declared “U.S. higher education is morally and intellectually corrupt, beyond the possibility of self-repair, and therefore no longer a worthwhile setting in which to spend my time and effort.”
It is not clear that the cancel campaign prompted the decision of Justice Thomas, but the prospect of protests planned for the Fall could not have helped in his decision making. What is clear is that his departure is likely to fuel additional efforts to isolate and stigmatize those with opposing views.
Recently, for example, Rep. Susan Wild, D-Penn., used her address as George Washington’s commencement speaker to accuse me of using law for “wrongful ends” for questioning the constitutional basis for former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. The basis of her allegation was a demonstrably false accusation that even her Democratic colleagues refuted in the hearing. It simply did not matter that what Rep. Wild told our graduates was factually untrue. The point is to relentlessly attack and ultimately exhaust those with opposing views.
Such attacks are now a common factor of life for many faculty members offering dissenting views on issues ranging from impeachment to diversity programs to police abuse to transgender identification to vaccines to
Indeed, this week, University of Michigan medical professor Dr. Kristin Collier faced the same type of attack at an introduction ceremony. Almost half of the University of Michigan’s incoming medical school class walked out of a “white coat ceremony” to protest that fact that she opposes legalized abortion. She was not planning to discuss abortion, but the mere fact that she doesn’t support it made her speaking at the event unacceptable.
For more than a decade, George Washington University Law School benefited greatly from the teaching of Justice Thomas, who combines a legendary career with one of the most inspiring life stories in the history of the court. Whatever the reason for his cessation in teaching, he deserves our thanks.
He also deserved better. He deserved greater public support from individual faculty members. He deserved greater understanding from students. He deserved an equally vocal counter-campaign in support of free speech and a diversity of viewpoints at the university.
Yet, there is now an overwhelming fear among faculty and students that they could be next to be targeted in a cancel campaign or to be shunned by colleagues. These campaigns threaten everything that brings meaning to an intellectual from access to classes to conferences to publications.
This is why many choose to remain silent as the mob pursues their colleagues. For those tagged as dissenters, the atmosphere is perfectly Robespierrean.
When asked what he had done during the Reign of Terror, he replied: “I stayed alive.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley