While President Donald Trump was condemning the exercise of free speech on the football field, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was defending it on college campuses.
Speaking to a group of students at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Sessions condemned the “fragile egos” that had led to what he called the “echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought” on college campuses. He reserved particular vitriol for left-wing activists, comparing demonstrators at Middlebury College — where violent protests broke out in March over a talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray — to the “detestable Ku Klux Klan.”
"Freedom of thought and free speech on American campuses are under attack,” Sessions said, before announcing that the Department of Justice intended to make free speech on campus a major issue going forward:
Starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle. We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come. To that end, we are filing a Statement of Interest in a campus free speech case this week, and we will be filing more in the weeks and months to come.
That statement of interest pertains to an ongoing case involving the right of a campus Christian group to proselytize at a Georgia college, which Session did not name.
For some, Sessions's words struck an ironic chord, as it follows Trump’s open condemnation of NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. On Monday, 31 Georgetown professors released an open letter to Sessions, decrying the “hypocrisy” of an official defending free speech while supporting an administration that, in their view, generally did not.
More than 100 students, professors, and DC locals protested the event itself, with some choosing to kneel, echoing the controversial NFL protests this weekend. In addition, some Georgetown students who had signed up online to attend the event were told via email that their seats had been rescinded because they were not on the official invitation list. Those seats, according to organizers, were only for students affiliated with the Center for the Constitution, which is run by conservative professor Randy Barnett. Some students took this as an attempt to ensure a more sympathetic audience, although representatives for the center told the Washington Post they were following standard procedure for high-profile events.
Sessions addressed the apparent discrepancy head on, in response to a student’s submitted question. “The president has free speech rights too,” he said. “He sends soldiers out every day to defend this country on the flag, on the national anthem, on the unity that those symbols call us to adhere to. ... [It] is a big mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the commitment we have.” He pointed out that the football players in question weren’t subject to any kind of legal prosecution, but said that people who take “provocative actions” should “expect to be condemned.”
When asked in a follow-up how citizens might “properly” register their opinions, Sessions appeared to evade the question, saying that while people had a “right to register their opinions,” it was “up to the [football team owners] and the people who create these games and pay for those ballfields to decide what you can do on those ballfields” — an argument that, in theory, could be used to defend censorship at private colleges as well.
Throughout his remarks, Sessions, who has come under fire in the past for extreme anti-immigrant and potentially Islamophobic rhetoric, repeatedly highlighted democracy and free speech as not just quintessentially, but exclusively, American concepts. “The American heritage of law ... [is] unique,” he said. “I’ve traveled the globe. I’ve been in Afghanistan. We helped [the Afghans] write a constitution, but they had no heritage of it,” before adding that it failed to be implemented because the Afghan people didn’t have a sufficient cultural sense of liberty.
When asked what he would say to the protesters outside, Sessions exhorted them to remember and defend “the very uniqueness of this right that we have" in America.
Just not on the football field.