U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is noted for rarely speaking during the court’s oral arguments, as well as for years of self-imposed exile from the public eye after his bruising 1991 confirmation hearings.
But the justice has long made selective speeches to welcoming, usually conservative groups.
This week, Justice Thomas was the keynote speaker for an annual awards dinner at a national student-essay contest sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that develops instructional materials about the nation’s founding documents.
At the March 31 dinner at a Washington hotel, Justice Thomas enthusiastically greeted the nine regional winners of the institute’s “Being an American” essay contest. He met with the 27 semifinalists picked from 31,000 submissions by high school students nationwide.
Noting that he is approaching the end of his 18th term on the court, Justice Thomas said he realized that most of the students in the contest hadn’t been born when he joined the Supreme Court.
“That is a sobering point,” he said.
Focus on ‘Obligations’
For this Bill of Rights Institute audience, Justice Thomas didn’t mention his views, expressed in a 2007 concurrence in Morse v. Frederick, that he does not believe the First Amendment protects student speech in schools.
“In the earliest [U.S.] public schools, teachers taught, and students listened,” Justice Thomas wrote in that opinion. “Teachers commanded, and students obeyed.”
In his wide-ranging remarks last week, the justice spoke about “a proliferation of rights” and “the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances.”
“At least it seems to me that, more and more, people are celebrated for their litany of grievances about this or that,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our ‘bill of obligations,’ and our ‘bill of responsibilities’?”
Jackson Sittenauer, a junior at Hayden High School in Topeka, Kan., and one of the nine regional winners, said he found Justice Thomas’ talk inspiring.
“His talks kick you off your pedestal about how most Americans think about their rights,” Mr. Sittenauer said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week