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From the University of Georgia to George Washington University, Supreme Court justices will face an unusual number of protests as they fan out to give graduation speeches in coming weeks. The University of Georgia School of Law has been sharply divided over plans by professor Donald Wilkes Jr. to protest Justice Clarence Thomas’ speech at graduation ceremonies May 17. Dean David Shipley told students in a recent e-mail he was “sorry and very disappointed” about an anti-Thomas petition circulated just before final exams, and the president of the graduating students says the size of the class donation to the school will probably be reduced because of the protest. Meanwhile, a national student organization formed to defend affirmative action programs has announced plans to demonstrate wherever Supreme Court justices speak in public, until the Court hands down its decision in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. “We want them to know that young people are going to stand up for integrated education. It won’t be something the justices can just push aside,” says Tanya Troy, spokesperson for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, which helped organize protests outside the Court when the Michigan cases were argued April 1. The group, known as BAMN, has listed several upcoming appearances by justices on its Web site, including the Thomas speech in Athens and commencement speeches by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at George Washington University Law School in D.C. on May 25, and by Justice Stephen Breyer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on May 19 and at Boston College Law School on May 23. But the controversy over Thomas’ speech at the University of Georgia is shaping up as the most divisive, reminiscent of a similar protest in March 2002 when black faculty members and students boycotted Thomas’ appearance at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Wilkes, who teaches criminal procedure and English legal history, first made his plans known in February with an open letter to the school detailing his objections to the selection of Thomas as commencement speaker. “The decision to invite Justice Thomas is appalling, unwise, and perverse — the embodiment of bad judgment,” Wilkes wrote. “Anyone who has carefully examined his opinions in the fields of criminal procedure, civil rights, civil liberties, the rights of prisoners, and the writ of habeas corpus knows that Justice Thomas has one of the most anti-human rights voting records in modern Supreme Court history. . . . His appearance here will, in the eyes of future generations, be a blot on the reputation of and an embarrassment to this law school.” Describing Thomas as inimicus libertatis — Latin for “enemy of liberty” — Wilkes catalogued objectionable Thomas opinions and votes, including those in Bush v. Gore in 2000, and in last year’s Hope v. Pelzer. In that ruling, Thomas dissented from the majority’s ruling that handcuffing inmates to a hitching post violated the Eighth Amendment. Wilkes announced in the letter that at the time Thomas speaks May 17, he would be giving an alternative address elsewhere on campus detailing Thomas’ “right-wing ideology.” The protest, he said, would be part of a “lawful, respectful, peaceable, classic exercise of First Amendment rights.” In an interview, Wilkes said if Thomas were coming to give a speech to the Federalist Society or other campus group, “I would not be appalled.” But giving the commencement address, Wilkes said, “is an honor, and he does not deserve the honor as long as he hands down decisions that continue to denigrate individual rights.” Wilkes described Thomas as “one of that unholy trio” that also includes Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia. Asked if he would have mounted a similar protest if Rehnquist or Scalia were giving the commencement address, Wilkes said, “most definitely.” Wilkes said the controversy over his protest has been “very, very divisive” and has made him the target of “a tremendous amount of hateful e-mail.” He expects as many as half of the roughly three dozen faculty members not to attend commencement, but has no idea how many students will boycott Thomas’ speech or attend Wilkes’ presentation. “I don’t bring it up in class. I don’t want to place pressure on anyone,” he said. Josh Belinfante, third-year class president and head of the campus chapter of the Federalist Society, says he does not expect the protest to be large: “No students have told me that they are skipping graduation, and I’ve talked with some that vehemently disagree with Justice Thomas’ jurisprudence.” Belinfante says he and several other students have reduced their contribution to the class gift to the law school, because of a letter signed by Wilkes and others that objected to the way in which Thomas was chosen as a speaker. Last year’s class gift was roughly $12,000, and Belinfante says this year’s is likely to be less, in part because of student disapproval of the protest. The letter cited by Belinfante, signed by 11 faculty members late last month, complained that the school’s process in choosing Justice Thomas as a speaker was “underinclusive, clandestine, and divisive.” More than 50 students have signed the letter, according to Wilkes. In response, Shipley, the school’s dean, says that “there was nothing secretive or clandestine about the selection of our graduation speaker. The class officers came to me with a recommendation, and I approved it enthusiastically.” Shipley says the petition “got me a little upset,” and he finds the charge of a clandestine selection process “maddening.” The leaders of the graduating class came to him last fall with a recommendation to invite Thomas, says Shipley. Thomas had been invited before, but could not come because of a schedule conflict, Shipley adds, but this time Thomas said yes. “Most of the student body and most of the faculty agree that it is wonderful to get a Supreme Court justice, and moreover a justice from Georgia, to speak,” says Shipley. Past commencement speakers have included Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former Gov. Roy Barnes, and Judge Phyllis Kravitch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Shipley stresses that Wilkes and whoever joins him at his event “have every right to voice their disagreement.” Shipley expected there to be some disagreement over the choice of Thomas in light of last year’s UNC protest. “But he’s a Supreme Court justice,” Shipley notes. “I might disagree with his positions in a number of opinions, but having him with us is a great way to mark the occasion.”

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