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Opinion Why Clarence Thomas shouldn’t have backed down

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits during a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021. (Erin Schaff/the New York Times via AP, Pool)

Few public figures have been as maligned and attacked as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. From his hostile, history-making confirmation hearings in 1991 to a recent petition to cancel him from George Washington University’s law faculty, he has been liberal Americans’ favorite target for most of his public life.

No wonder the man prefers to vacation in RV campgrounds than the Hamptons.

Thomas’s concurrence last month reversing Roe v. Wade was a surprise to no one. Unlike some of his conservative colleagues, Thomas has long been straightforward about his pro-life stance and his preference for overturning Roe. His day finally rolled around at a pivotal moment when the court’s conservative composition reached critical mass.

Nevertheless, his suggestion that the court also should revisit rulings on contraception and same-sex marriage has released a different level of hostility. At GWU, some 7,000 students petitioned the university to fire Thomas, who has taught a constitutional law seminar since 2011. A separate petition sponsored by MoveOn is demanding Thomas’s impeachment, citing not only his concurrence in the abortion case but also the alleged participation of his wife, Virginia Thomas, in the rally ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and her efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. The petition thus far has 1.2 million signatures.

To its credit, the university refused to fire Thomas. In an email Tuesday, Provost Christopher Bracey and GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew, while disavowing Thomas’s views, wrote that the university honors “academic freedom and freedom of expression and inquiry.” They added that it’s not the university’s job to “shield” students from opinions they might find offensive, they said. Hear, hear.

But Thomas has now withdrawn of his own accord. He’s no longer listed on GW Law’s course list. His co-lecturer and former clerk, Gregory Maggs, sent an email to students who had registered for the seminar, saying that Thomas is “unavailable” to teach this fall.

Maybe Thomas became unnerved by the onslaught, though he doesn’t appear to be an un-nervy kind of guy. He’s been there, done all that. As an African American growing up in the South, Thomas knows something about rejection. As a conservative, he also knows about being slandered and maligned for his point of view. A man of deep Catholic faith, who has transcended his anger-filled youth and early rebellion against the Church, he’s not easily bullied.

My guess, all things being equal, is that Thomas has far better things to do with his time than teach law to youngsters. At 74, he is the longest-serving of the nine justices, has spent 30 years on the bench, and earned the right to do only what he wants. Trust me, at a certain age, you begin to allot your time more carefully.

For what it’s worth, I couldn’t disagree more with Thomas on some matters. But as a reporter first, I’m always interested in what other people think, say and do. As my late father-in-law Bratton Davis used to say, “I already know what I know. But if I’m talking, I won’t know what you know.” (He was trying to nudge the grandchildren toward quietude, but his point is especially apt in the context of a university.)

Most public conservatives are familiar with the sort of censorship the GWU students tried to advance. Students at Elon University in North Carolina once tried to boycott me and petitioned the university to cancel my speech, citing a humorous but serious book I wrote about saving the males. The university president denied the petition, hired an armed guard to follow me around and, get this, asked me not to give the talk I was planning to give — on free speech. I’m happy to wing a speech, which I did, but I shouldn’t have backed down. They needed to hear that lecture.

I wish Thomas hadn’t backed down either. I’m just a columnist, but Thomas is a Supreme Court justice and the only Black conservative justice in U.S. history. His recusal from teaching is a loss for the university and for the students whose self-anointed betters have effectively denied those who wanted a chance to hear Thomas — and perhaps to challenge him. The self-righteousness of the close-minded is nothing short of bigotry.

Conservatism has acquired a bad rep in recent years, thanks to you-know-who and his minions — including, alas, Thomas’s betrothed.

But true conservatives eschew ideology and welcome all ideas in the secure knowledge that they will prevail through logic, reason and an unromantic view of human nature. Until they win the war against the ideologues in their own midst, America has much more to fear from the tyranny of the mob than it does from a Supreme Court justice talking about the U.S. Constitution to, hello, law students.