While addressing a group of students at Georgetown Law School in Washington DC on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice would protect the First Amendment rights of college students across the country.
After citing several examples of students’ right to free speech being trampled, Sessions said the DOJ was filing a statement of interest this afternoon on behalf of Christian students who were barred from preaching on campus at Georgia Gwinnett College. The DOJ would continue to step in to defend students’ constitutional rights if campus officials got in the way, he added.
The attorney general also encouraged students to stand up for everyone’s right to express themselves freely and clarified protecting speech does not mean protecting violence of any kind, including the deadly rampage in Charlottesville, Virginia last month.
After Sessions’ remarks, professor Randy Barnett asked Sessions a few questions students had submitted ahead of the event, including one about the ongoing controversy of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
“As attorney general, does it concern you that these players are being condemned by many, including the president, for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and protest?” Barnett asked on behalf of a student.
“The president has free speech rights, too,” Sessions responded. “The players aren’t subject to any prosecution, but if they take a provocative act they can expect to be condemned. And the president has the right to condemn them.”
Outside of the hall where the event was held, roughly 100 students and faculty members protested Sessions’ presence on campus.
Protestors’ signs hung along the exit and along the halls outside of the auditorium where the event was held.
In an open letter, several faculty members said while they “fully acknowledge” Barnett’s right to invite Sessions to speak, they objected the the hypocrisy of Sessions speaking out about protecting free speech.
“We will not be fooled,” the letter reads. “Adhering to the First Amendment requires more than rhetoric. It requires adherence through action, applied equally and equitably, by the head of the Department of Justice.”
Several students complained their invitations were rescinded after they registered for the event, including Ashton Hoselton and Melani Mennella — both second-year law students who were among those protesting outside.
“Sessions is speaking about safe spaces and he himself is creating an echo chamber,” Mennella said.
The attorney general was not involved deciding which students were invited or excluded from the event, Tanya Weinberg, director of media relations at Georgetown Law, said in a statement. Weinberg said that the event, which was organized by The Center for the Constitution, “was only open to invited students from across the Law Center who have in the past signed up to attend at least one event convened by the Center.”
“The speech was also simulcast in a designated area on campus, for those not selected to attend the event,” Weinberg wrote.
Barnett also invited students enrolled in his classes and explained on Twitter that someone posted the RSVP link on Facebook, which prompted uninvited students to register for the event.