Sessions event on free speech met with protests

Lydia Wheeler

Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘s remarks on the First Amendment were met with protests at Georgetown University’s law school on Tuesday, with students and faculty criticizing the event for being announced late and difficult to get into.

Ravan Austin, a second-year law student, was among the more than 100 students protesting on the steps of McDonough Hall while Sessions spoke in the basement auditorium.

She claimed the student body wasn’t notified of the event, which was coordinated by the school’s Center for the Constitution, until Monday morning and that only select groups were invited to the speech.  

Some students claimed they had been disinvited, The Washington Post reported. 

“How can you hold an event for free speech and curate who you want in the audience?” Austin asked. 

Randy Barnett, a law professor and director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, said those students who claimed to be disinvited were never invited to begin with. 

“People RSVP’d or they got access to the RSVP link on a Facebook page, but they were never on the invitation list,” he said.

Barnett said closed, invitation-only events are common on the Georgetown campus. 

“We as The Constitution Center are as entitled to hold a by-invitation event as any other group on this campus,” he said. “And to single us out, saying somehow because we bring a controversial speaker on campus that we are obligated to open our event when other organizations are not obligated to open their events, I think is a symptom of the kind of problem that those who have minority views face today.”

Sessions’s speech and the subsequent protest come just days after the University of California, Berkeley canceled “Free Speech Week,” a four-day festival organized by the The Berkeley Patriot, a conservative student group. 

Right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to headline the festival, claimed the school had “silenced” them by making them jump through bureaucratic hoops. But Berkeley said that the students had failed to secure the right paperwork for the events, while a number of announced speakers bailed on Yiannopoulos’s planned panels or said they had never agreed to come in the first place.

President Trump also created a maelstrom of controversy Friday when he said professional athletes who kneel in protest during the national anthem should be fired. The comments were directed at Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback who began sitting down or taking a knee during the anthem last year to protest the killings of unarmed black people by police.  

Outside Sessions’s speech, students carried signs that read “#BlackLivesMatter” and “All Constitutional and Human Rights are at stake under this administration.” 

“We’re here because we think Sessions hasn’t been displaying the best approach to free speech and this administration in general,” said Valerie Cantave, a third-year law student.  

Barnett said he chose to hold an invitation-only event not to get a crowd that would be sympathetic to Sessions’s remarks but one that would react to his speech in a civil manner. He said the people who were invited were a politically diverse group of students.   

Sessions told the auditorium, which still had open seats, that freedom of thought and speech are under attack on the American campus. 

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

Sessions was also met with protests inside the event, with students dressed all in black and with duct tape over their mouths standing up briefly at the end of his remarks.

Sessions gave several examples of schools that have shut down free speech due to protests. He cited “the Orwellian-named ‘antifascist’ protestors,” commonly known as “antifa,” who successfully shut down numerous campus speaker events in recent months at Berkeley.

Sessions said the school was forced to spend more than $600,000 and have an overwhelming police presence simply to prove that the mob was not in control of the campus.

“This is not right,” he said. “This is not in the great tradition of America. And, yet, school administrators bend to this behavior. In effect, they coddle it and encourage it.”

But Sessions clarified that protecting free speech does not mean condoning the violence, like the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last month.

“Indeed, I call upon universities to stand up against those who would silence free expression by violence or other means on their campuses,” he said. 

“But a mature society can tell the difference between violence and unpopular speech, and a truly free society stands up — and speaks up — for cherished rights precisely when it is most difficult to do so.”  

Sessions said the Department of Justice will do its part and enforce federal law, defend free speech and protect students’ free expression.  

He said the agency is filing a statement of interest in a campus free speech case this week and plans to file more in the future.

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