Guest Opinion: Cancel culture comes to a classroom

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Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. He has taught and written extensively on the U.S. Supreme Court and constitutional law issues. As chair of the Dover Human Relations Commission, he led movements for a statewide slavery apology and a same-sex marriage law.

This is not the article I originally intended to contribute this month. My first idea was to demand equal time with July Shark Month by proposing that August be deemed Octopus Month. But levity was replaced with lament when I read about the disgraceful events surrounding U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ decision to stop co-teaching a seminar at George Washington University Law School.

For 10 years, Justice Thomas joined a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, Gregory Maggs, in teaching a course titled “Leading Cases in Context,” which focused on the background of seminal cases reaching the high court. Thomas’ interaction with, and genuine concern for, students was evident throughout, a trait observed by well-known George Washington professor Jonathan Turley, among others.

But for more than 11,000 of the university’s undergraduate and law school students, Thomas’ concurring opinion in the June Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision — which overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent on abortion and recommended reconsideration of other substantive due process decisions — was the impetus for a protest movement to ouster him from the school’s environs. After Thomas’ voluntary withdrawal from teaching, one student quoted in a recent Washington Post article promised continuing protests throughout the fall semester in order to dissuade Thomas from returning next spring.

This is a prime instance of “wokewashing,” which is my term for political correctness run amok. Who in their right mind would not want a Supreme Court justice to visit campus, let alone furnish invaluable insights as an instructor? For some, like commentator George Will, this is further demonstration of the decline of higher education. Will argued in a recent column that “diversity is praised in the abstract but suppressed in fact” by dogmatism in academe.

While George Washington administrators at first refused to give in to student demands to remove Thomas from the classroom, their support was lukewarm, as they issued a communique stating that the justice’s “views do not represent the views of either the George Washington University or its Law School.” I take that to be code for assuming that a person may pontificate adverse opinions within the classroom rather than outside it, something Clarence Thomas has never been accused of.

This controversy has unfolded at the same time a cadre of students are insisting that the university change its name due to George Washington’s behavior toward slavery. So the offended students are seeking to cancel a Founding Father but not support an African American whose ancestors were enslaved.

As a person whose career has been in college classrooms, allow me to state a few simple truisms.

First, one does not let his or her personal views interfere with the obligation to provide unbiased, balanced views about topics being covered. Second, being a college professor doesn’t disqualify one from expressing strong views outside of academic halls. For example, I teach constitutional law, where all approaches to interpreting the Constitution are reviewed. However, as an activist for my beliefs, I have opposed the doctrine of originalism in opinion columns and in an actual debate with a University of Toledo law professor. In like fashion, I have taken issue with many of Justice Thomas’ positions, whether on abortion, same-sex marriage or affirmative action, but only after class is over.

The protesters at George Washington University may have scored a victory in forcing Justice Thomas’ removal from teaching there. But it is a pyrrhic one for free speech. Maybe they should have read Justice Thomas’ opinion written for a unanimous Supreme Court in the 2015 case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which upheld speech rights by noting the distinction between content and viewpoint. Too bad that the myopic and mean-spirited mob at such a fine institution could not understand the difference.

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