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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Addresses Free Speech on College Campuses at Georgetown Law

September 27, 2017 —

Georgetown Law’s Center for the Constitution hosted an event on September 26 with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who made remarks on free speech on university campuses.

“I know that the vast majority of youths like you…need no lecture on the dangers of government imposed group think,” said Sessions, speaking in Hart Auditorium. “But we have seen a rash of incidents…of those students and professors unable or unwilling to defend their own beliefs in a public forum."

"Unfortunately…these trends have been tolerated by administrators and shrugged off by other students," he added. "So let us directly address the question: Why should we worry about free speech that may be in retreat [at] our universities?”

Sessions spoke before an audience that included Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett, director of the Center for the Constitution, students affiliated with the Center or in Barnett’s constitutional law classes, and members of the media. The attorney general noted recent examples where students on college campuses were prevented from handing out copies of the Constitution, relegated to “free speech zones” or subject to university policies that silenced speech.

“The right of free speech does not exist only to protect the ideas upon which most of us agree at a given moment in time,” he said. “As Justice Brandeis eloquently stated in 1927… the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” 

Protecting free speech, Sessions said, does not mean condoning violence like we saw recently in Charlottesville. “Indeed, I call upon universities…to stand up against those who would silence free expression by violence or other means,” he said. “But a mature society can tell the difference between violence and unpopular speech, and a truly free society stands up, speaks up for cherished rights precisely when it is most difficult to do so.” 

Following Sessions’ remarks, the attorney general engaged in a conversation with Barnett, who asked questions submitted by students. 

The attorney general’s remarks affirmed that we have a tradition of free speech in this country that goes beyond the First Amendment, Barnett said after the event. “It’s a culture of free speech that could be very well endangered if the majority in a given community can act even nonviolently to suppress the speech of a minority.”

Noah McCullough (L’20), a Bradley Fellow at the Center for the Constitution, said that the issue of free speech on college campuses has become more problematic in recent years. “I thought it was interesting the way he framed the unique role that the First Amendment has played in American history,” McCullough said of the attorney general. “He discussed how our constitutional right to free speech is fundamental to our republic, and that this fundamental right is part of what empowered people like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to shape this nation for the better." 


Protests

While the conversation took place, law students and faculty were outside of McDonough Hall with signs protesting Sessions’ visit (some students who attended also engaged in silent protests in the auditorium). Sessions said he respected the views of the protestors. “We will defend your views and the right to express them in appropriate and effective ways,” he said.

Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor said that free speech in higher education is at the core of Georgetown Law’s academic mission.

“Georgetown Law is a place that takes ideas very seriously, and where people sharply disagree,” he said. “I’ve heard from many faculty and students that they wanted to protest the actions of the Administration and the attorney general, and it’s part of the mission of a great academic institution that they are able to express their views and engage in civil debate. As an academic institution, it is also important that we hear the attorney general express his ideas about free speech at the university.”

More than 100 Georgetown Law faculty and staff members protested the visit in writing, citing recent examples of “governmental actions antithetical to freedom of speech and association for which Attorney General Sessions is either closely related or directly responsible.” These include the NFL player protests and the prosecution of Desiree Fairooz for unlawful conduct.

“Adhering to the First Amendment requires more than rhetoric,” the statement reads. “It requires adherence through action, applied equally and equitably, by the head of the Department of Justice.”

The Administration “has shown time and time again that they sometimes can talk about free speech,” asserted 3L student protester Ian Engdhal (L’18), who listened to the attorney general in a room outside Hart Auditorium. “But the day-to-day actions of the Administration…are inconsistent with free speech.”

Protesters gather outside of McDonough Hall before Jeff Sessions' speech

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