Jeff Sessions Wades Into Debates Over Campus and NFL Speech

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced at Georgetown University today that the Justice Department will take on a greater role in free expression battles on college campuses.

In a speech denouncing what he characterized as an ongoing assault by illiberal administrators and students, Sessions said the Justice Department will file a Statement of Interest in a free speech case at Georgia Gwinnett College college this week, with more such statements likely in the coming weeks. A Christian student at Gwinnet filed a lawsuit against the college after he was told he could distribute literature only in two tiny areas approved by the college.

"Starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle," Sessions said. "We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students' free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come."

Battles over what kind of speech should be permitted on college campuses have been going on for years, but they've reached a feverish pitch in recent months as white nationalists and anti-fascist protesters fought in the streets.

As a large number of faculty and students protested outside the building, Sessions invoked America's long history of open debate and free expression, from the founding of the country to the civil rights movement, to argue that speech should not be subject to the whims of government officials.

"Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack," Sessions said. "The American university was once the center of academic freedom—a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."

"The right to freely examine the moral and the immoral, the prudent and the foolish, the practical and the inefficient, and the right to argue for their merits or demerits remain indispensable for a healthy republic," he continued. "This has been known since the beginning of our nation."

Sessions cited cases of students being stopped from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution, which administrators deemed "provocative" literature, as well as the proliferation of campus speech codes and "free speech zones" that limit how and where students can exercise their First Amendment rights.

Such speech codes and zones have been the subject of many challenges by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which Sessions cited in his remarks.

"The First Amendment is the law of the land on public campuses, but for decades colleges have been treating that fundamental right as though it's optional," FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in a statement. "By supporting student litigation, the Department of Justice can help us ensure that all students can express themselves freely on campus."

Somewhat ironically, Georgetown designated three official "zones" for those protesting Sessions' speech. It is probably also worth noting that a woman is being prosecuted for laughing at Sessions during his confirmation hearing.

During a Q&A session after his speech, Sessions was asked about the ongoing controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, which has sparked a series of scathing tweets from Sessions' boss, President Donald Trump.

"The president has free speech rights, too," Sessions said. "So I agree that it's a big mistake to protest in that fashion, because it weakens the commitment we have to his nation that has provided us these freedoms. I would note, of course, that the players aren't subject to any prosecution, but if they take a provocative act, they can expect to be condemned."

The juxtaposition between Sessions' civic-minded calls for tolerance and the president's use of his bully pulpit to hurl insults at peaceful protesters was not lost on the students protesting outside Sessions' speech.

"I find it hypocritical for a member of the Trump administration to act as a champion for free speech while the president has consistently mocked and insulted those trying to exercise the very same rights," Richard Hand, a third-year law student at Georgetown, told CNN.