George Washington University rejected calls to remove Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from its law school faculty by students and others frustrated over the judge’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and his urging to reconsider other landmark civil rights cases.
“Because we steadfastly support the robust exchange of ideas and deliberation, and because debate is an essential part of our university’s academic and educational mission to train future leaders who are prepared to address the world’s most urgent problems, the university will neither terminate Justice Thomas’ employment nor cancel his class in response to his legal opinions,” leaders wrote Tuesday.
The school’s stance, however, has left many students unsatisfied, said Jon Kay, a rising junior who started a petition demanding Thomas’s termination. The petition amassed nearly 9,000 signatures, including from people not from GW, in less than a week, and organizers are considering other ways to pressure administrators into changing course.
The conflict is yet another flash point in the college free speech debate, as students demand greater say over who should be on a university’s payroll and what ideas can be tolerated on campus. In another recent case in the D.C. region, students at Georgetown University’s law school similarly clashed with officials over Ilya Shapiro, a former administrator whose tweets about President Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court triggered a months-long investigation. Shapiro, after being placed on paid administrative leave, was cleared of wrongdoing but resigned, citing a hostile work environment.
Meanwhile, administrators are under increasing pressure to showcase their schools as places where students and faculty can openly disagree with one another, while also ensuring community members feel safe and welcome. Leaders at GW — referencing the school’s academic freedom guidelines — said “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals within or outside the university from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Thomas’s views do not represent those of the university and, like other faculty, he “has academic freedom and freedom of expression and inquiry,” officials said.
Jordan Michel, a recent law school graduate and former president of the GW Law Student Bar Association, said he took Thomas’s constitutional law seminar last fall, a course in which students discuss the context around Supreme Court cases, instead of just the legal analyses or the facts that made it into the court’s opinions. The class is co-taught by Gregory Maggs, the justice’s former clerk.
“He’s very disarming in person,” Michel said about Thomas, adding it seemed he “thoroughly enjoys [teaching].” He said Thomas was on campus for nearly every weekly class meeting.
Michel said he enjoyed the course’s content. But students sometimes felt they were “walking on eggshells” when discussing certain topics, such as gun rights or affirmative action, because they felt they already knew Thomas’s stance.
Now he backs calls to remove Thomas from the faculty.
“There’s agreement among law students that having diverse perspectives is important,” said Michel, 36. “But when somebody who’s supposed to be educating us fails to subscribe to or uphold the ethical, legal, moral obligations that we are here trying to abide by, it becomes problematic for us.”
Some recent law school alumni are considering withholding donations while Thomas remains on the faculty, Michel added. Thomas and Maggs are scheduled to teach the course again this fall, a university spokesperson said.
Other graduates support the university. “I am not fond of the idea of, ‘this teacher is repugnant for something outside of the classroom and therefore should be fired,’ ” said another of Thomas’s former students at GW who works as an attorney for a government agency and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be associated with the controversy at his alma mater. He does not agree with many of Thomas’s past judgments but thinks “the school is absolutely right.”
Kay, the undergraduate who organized the petition, said student groups will continue to push the university.
“Right now it’s just about continuing to make noise, continuing to spread a consistent message and make sure the university knows their statement didn’t just end the conversation,” said Kay, 20. “I was just so outraged that our school continued to employ Justice Thomas, not only after his vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, but also his implicit intention to overturn Obergefell, Lawrence and Griswold.”
In a concurring opinion released after the court struck down Roe v. Wade — which legalized abortion nationwide — Thomas wrote the court should reconsider other cases that relied on the same legal reasoning. Those cases include Obergefell v. Hodges, which established the right of gay couples to marry; Lawrence v. Texas, a case that invalidated sodomy laws and legalized same-sex sexual activity throughout the country; and Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 ruling that established the right for married couples to buy and use contraception.
“It’s just unacceptable for our university to be continuing his employment,” Kay said about Thomas. “Through employing him, we are endorsing his actions.”