Sessions Calls for ‘National Recommitment to Free Speech’ on Campuses
The remarks come after a series of incidents in which the First Amendment rights of students or speakers have been curbed at public and private schools.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussed recent protests, revolving around free speech, that have occurred at universities and colleges around the country. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday called for a "national recommitment to free speech on campus" and said that the Department of Justice will take an active role in ensuring First Amendment protections at colleges and universities amid a series of recent controversies largely around events involving conservative activists.
"Starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle," he said to an auditorium of about 300 students during a speech delivered at Georgetown Law in Washington. "We will enforce federal law, defend free speech and protect students' free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come. "
The announcement comes as campuses are struggling to walk a line between preserving free speech and acting as a space that showcases a variety of ideas, while at the same time protecting students – particularly those in demographic groups that may feel marginalized or threatened by the ideas espoused by a group or speaker.
College and university campuses have long served as hubs of activism, homes for debates over politics and policy and safe spaces for students to explore a variety of viewpoints. As such, they've historically been bastions of free speech. But last school year was a grueling one for the First Amendment on campuses across the country, and most of the violent protestsoccurred against conservative pundits and commentators.
While free speech is typically associated with liberal ideals – indeed, the liberal University of California, Berkeley is home to the Free Speech Movement – the recent pushback against conservative thinkers on college campuses has the Trump administration on high alert.
Sessions said the department plans to file a legal brief called a "statement of interest" in a campus free speech case this week and will be filing more in the weeks and months to come.
The statement of interest, which allows the department to weigh in on a case without being a party to it, will be filed on behalf of a college student at Georgia Gwinnett College who argued his free speech rights were violated when he was blocked from distributing fliers sharing his Christian faith.
The student filed a lawsuit in December 2016 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
"We think it's appropriate to affirm what the proper parameters of free speech are in this college in Georgia," Sessions said in a Q&A after his speech.
Ahead of the event, a group of about 100 protesters crowded the stairs to the entrance of the school, holding signs that read, "hypocrite," "hate speech is not free speech" and "deport hate."
Sessions spoke for about 30 minutes, urging students to embrace free speech.
"As you exercise these rights, realize how precious, how rare and how fragile they are," he said. "In most societies throughout history and in so many that I have had the opportunity to visit, such rights do not exist."
Throughout the speech, Sessions called out several instances in which the First Amendment rights of students or speakers have been curbed at public and private schools, including at Kellogg Community College in Michigan, where students were arrested after they refused to stop handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution, and at Middlebury College in Vermont, where a speech by conservative thinker Charles Murray was violently interrupted.
"Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack," he 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 homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."
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