Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Department of Justice charged into the raging battle over suppression of speech on America’s college campuses Tuesday, only to be met by protesting leftist law students and faculty upset at him being allowed to speak at the Georgetown University Law Center.
“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions told law students from Georgetown professor Randy Barnett’s Center for the Constitution program at the law school. “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.”
On cue, a group of protesters gathered to express their disapproval at the Attorney General of the United States being allowed to speak on their campus. Faculty members could be seen prominently posing in an imitation of Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFLers’ bent-knee protest against the American national anthem as they gathered in front of the group of future attorneys outside McDonough Hall, where Sessions was speaking at an auditorium inside.
Georgetown Law faculty arrives to take a knee in protest of Sessions' appearance on campus. pic.twitter.com/aOEaUgAQAJ
— Will Racke (@hwillracke) September 26, 2017
After his address, Sessions responded to a question from Barnett about the NFL protests the professors were aping. “It is a big mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the commitment we have to this nation that has provided us this freedom,” he said said of football players refusing to stand for the anthem.
One Georgetown Law student protester carried a sign saying, “Free Speech does not belong to WHITE MEN.”
Outside Sessions speech at Georgetown pic.twitter.com/AToAGwY892
— Alex Pappas (@AlexPappas) September 26, 2017
Many held signs reading “free speech is not hate speech,” a popular slogan among groups promoting campus speech codes and “shutting down” conservative speakers who dare accept invitations to speak to college students. It is a notion Barnett saw as inaccurate, telling Breitbart News, “True threats to others are properly prohibited, but there is not now, and should be, no exemption from the 1st Amendment for so-called ‘hate speech.'”
Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown Law professor involved in the protest, told the Washington Post that she did not believe Sessions should be invited to speak on law campuses. “You cannot invite people who so thoroughly threaten the basic premises of American law to a campus and not speak up if your mission in life is to educate people about the American legal system,” she said.
Barnett, a prominent constitutional scholar and proponent of a libertarian-informed theory of constitutional jurisprudence, runs the Center for the Constitution to promote the study of constitutional history and the the quest for the original meaning the nation’s founding documents. He hosted Sessions to speak before his student fellows about the assault on free speech and expressed his displeasure at his colleagues’ decision to launch the protest
“They were protesting before he said anything. So they clearly were not protesting the message of his speech–which was a plea for tolerance and intellectual diversity,” Barnett told Breitbart News.
Despite the protest, Sessions was able to deliver his speech calling for what he described as “the right of every American: the free, robust, and sometimes contentious exchange of ideas.”
The attorney general condemned “free speech zones” and campus “speech codes” prohibiting speakers some find offensive. He posed to the students the following:
[W]ho decides what is offensive and what is acceptable? The university is about the search for truth, not the imposition of truth by a government censor.
Speech and civility codes violate what the late Justice Antonin Scalia rightly called “the first axiom of the First Amendment,” which is that, “as a general rule, the state has no power to ban speech on the basis of its content.” In this great land, the government does not get to tell you what to think or what to say.
Also a target of Sessions’s disapproval were university administrators who willfully cancel speakers when Antifa and other violent leftist groups threaten and perpetrate violence in order to prevent right-leaning speakers from holding events. He said:
College administrators also have silenced speech by permitting “the heckler’s veto” to control who gets to speak and what messages are conveyed. In these instances, administrators discourage or prohibit speech if there is even a threat that it will be met with protest. In other words, the school favors the heckler’s disruptive tactics over the speaker’s First Amendment rights.
To coincide with Sessions’s speech, his Department of Justice filed a “Statement of Interest” in support of a group of students engaged in an ongoing campus free speech lawsuit against a student code demanding no speech that “disturbs the…comfort of person(s).”
“We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression,” Sessions said in a statement accompanying the filing.
The crowd of protesters outside McDonough Hall was estimated by the Washington Post at “dozens,” while the faculty members signing a statement denouncing Sessions numbered 30. The Georgetown University Law Center has over 2,200 students and 285 full and part-time faculty.