Attorney General Jeff Sessions bemoaned what he deemed an “attack” on free speech, and promised to boost protections for campus speakers, in an address at Georgetown University’s School of Law on Tuesday—all while more than 100 people, many of whom were barred from Sessions’ remarks, protested outside.
“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions declared:
Whereas the American University was once the center of academic freedom – a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas – it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.
However, it appears that it was Sessions–or, at least his campus sponsors—who was engaged in suppressing “robust debate” in the service of homogenous thought. According to the Washington Post, a group of more than 130 students had initially applied from the school to sit in on Sessions’ speech, only to be told later that the would not be allowed to attend as they were not part of the invited list of guests.
Speaking with the Post, student Lauren Philips said she and the other affected students “find it extraordinarily hypocritical that AG Sessions would lecture future attorneys about the importance of free speech on campus while actively excluding the wider student body.”
In a statment to Buzzfeed, Georgetown Law spokesperson Tanya Weinberg confirmed that a group of students not on the event guest list had initially RSVP’d, only to be told later they could not attend Sessions’ speech.
“Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy provides our faculty, staff and students broad latitude to invite speakers,” Weinberg said. “Similarly, it affords the right to members of our community to share their own views and objections about an invited speaker, and to protest peacefully in a manner that does not interfere with the invited speaker’s right to speak, the audience’s right to listen, and the safety and security of our campus.”
In a statement released ahead of Sessions’ appearance, faculty members of Georgetown Law School drew a clear distinction between their opposition to Sessions’ remarks, and their support of his right to make them.
“We are not protesting his free speech,” the group wrote in a letter signed by more than two dozen academics. “Our colleague had every right to invite him to speak. We are protesting against his and the Trump Administration’s views on free speech.”
During his speech, Sessions criticized the “heckler’s veto” which he claimed gave protesters the ability to shut down campus speakers whose ideas they disagreed with. However, no such shutdown occurred on the part of the 100 or so Georgetown community members who had gathered outside Sessions’ speech to angrily denounce his ongoing assault on civil rights.
Inside the auditorium, several audience members sat with black tape covering their mouths in protest as well.
The rest of the speech was standard Sessions—that is to say, deeply right-wing and infuriating. At one point, Sessions appeared to take a page out of President Donald Trump’s book, drawing a bizarre equivalence between protesters at Middlebury college, and the KKK.
Oblivious to the irony, Sessions added that “in this great land, the government does not tell you what to think or what to say.”
Unless, of course, a person is a professional football player protesting for civil rights, in which case they should expect consequences for “denegrating” symbols like the American flag.
And when it comes to the Donald Trump’s ongoing attacks on athlete protesters? Sessions was adamant: “The president has free speech rights too.”
Sessions ended his remarks by addressing the protesters outside his speech directly, insisting that he “celebrate[s]” their “diversity of opinion.”