Sessions Calls for ‘Recommitment’ to Free Speech on Campus, Diving Into Debate Top News


Sessions Calls for ‘Recommitment’ to Free Speech on Campus, Diving Into Debate Top News

But in weighing in on the Georgia lawsuit and in vowing to voice support in similar cases in coming weeks, Mr. Sessions drew on so-called statements of interest, a technique used aggressively by the Obama administration to push the boundaries of civil rights laws. They are a legal tool, historically reserved for matters of national security and diplomacy, used to interject the federal government in private disputes.

In the Georgia case, an evangelical Christian student sued administrators last year at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution, saying they had limited his ability to proselytize.

According to the lawsuit, the student, Chike Uzuegbunam, an undergraduate at the time, had distributed evangelical Christian materials outside the school library. The college’s administration stopped him because he was not within designated free-speech zones and had not obtained a permit.

Mr. Uzuegbunam later reserved a place outside the school’s food court, within a free-speech zone, and began “discussing the brevity of life and how all men and women have fallen short of God’s commands,” according to the lawsuit. After students complained, administrators said Mr. Uzuegbunam’s “open-air speaking” had disturbed the peace, and they restricted it.

Justice Department lawyers argued in the statement of interest that school administrators were unjustified in silencing Mr. Uzuegbunam simply because other students had been “uncomfortable.”

Casey Mattox, a senior lawyer at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Mr. Uzuegbunam, said the Justice Department’s support was heartening.

“It’s a boost for the broader free speech movement that the federal government is taking First Amendment rights very seriously,” said Mr. Mattox, whose organization is also representing a student arrested last year for distributing copies of the Constitution on the campus of Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich.

Mr. Sessions also mentioned that case in his remarks on Tuesday.

“The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” Mr. Sessions said. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”


Students at Georgetown University protested silently during a lecture on free speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Condemning a violent protest at Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vt., that this year shut down a speech by the author Charles Murray, Mr. Sessions noted that some of the dissenters had worn masks, “a common tactic also used by the detestable Ku Klux Klan.”

The debate about how to interpret the First Amendment on college campuses has divided university faculties, with some arguing for unrestricted speech, no matter how inflammatory, and others advocating boundaries be established in an age of internet trolling and cyberbullying.

At the University of California, Berkeley, the faculty is divided on the issue. Last week, a Free Speech Week event featuring the conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled.

Mr. Sessions invoked a recent appearance at Berkeley by the conservative writer Ben Shapiro, the former editor at large of Breitbart News, whom he described as a “Harvard trained lawyer who has been frequently targeted by anti-Semites for his Jewish faith, and who vigorously condemns hate speech on both the left and right.”

“To my knowledge,” Mr. Sessions said, “no one fainted, no one was unsafe.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at Berkeley and a First Amendment scholar, said he was pleased about Mr. Sessions’s advocacy for free speech. “I think it’s great that the attorney general of the United States is coming down on the side of free speech — I would hope liberals and conservatives can agree,” he said.

But Mr. Chemerinsky, who has co-written a new book, “Free Speech on Campus,” said he thought Mr. Sessions failed to fully consider the balance of freedom of expression with public safety.

“This university spent $600,000 to facilitate Ben Shapiro coming, and it was estimated if Milo Yiannopoulos came, it would cost $1 million,” he said. “It’s not sustainable for this campus on a weekly basis to facilitate free speech while protecting public safety. Where is that line to be drawn? It’s a really hard question.”

Further stoking the debate about First Amendment rights, Mr. Sessions joined Mr. Trump in criticizing professional athletes who have declined to stand for the national anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.

“The president has free speech rights, too,” Mr. Sessions said in response to a question from the audience. “If they take a provocative act, they have a right to be condemned, and the president has a right to condemn them, and I would condemn their actions.”

Some dissenting students and faculty at Georgetown — where Tiffany Trump, the president’s youngest daughter, is newly enrolled in the law school — called the administration’s message inconsistent.

“There’s hypocrisy here,” said Peter B. Edelman, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown. “Just as the president has shown a lack of respect for freedom of speech, the attorney general comes to make use of his freedom of speech at our law school.”

Mr. Sessions requested Tuesday’s appearance — the subject and time of which was chosen before Mr. Trump’s remarks about the N.F.L. — according to Randy Barnett, a professor of constitutional law who helped organize the event. Attendance was invitation-only, he said, in order to promote a “civil” tone.

Mr. Sessions urged the students to appreciate their ability to speak out. “As you exercise these rights, realize how precious, how rare and how fragile they are,” he said.

In “most societies throughout history,” he added, “openly criticizing the government or expressing unorthodox opinions could land you in jail, or worse.”

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Sessions Calls for ‘Recommitment’ to Free Speech on Campus, Diving Into Debate Top News

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Sessions Calls for ‘Recommitment’ to Free Speech on Campus, Diving Into Debate Top News




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