Attorney General Jeff Sessions will talk about free speech at the Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday, and many students and faculty members plan to protest the event.
Some welcomed the opportunity to hear from the top law-enforcement officer and top lawyer in the U.S. government. But others objected to the late notice and limited audience for such a high-profile speaker, and argued that was antithetical to the idea of free speech and an open exchange of ideas.
As the day went on Monday, some students said they got messages informing them they would not be allowed to attend the event, as they were not included on the invitation list drawn up by the Center for the Constitution, which is hosting Sessions.
It’s ironic, Spencer McManus, a third-year student from California, said, “that this attorney general is coming to our campus to tell us to exercise our constitutional rights, when he and the president have repeatedly condemned those who have exercised those rights. … We want people to understand what the First Amendment means.”
Over the weekend, President Trump condemned NFL players who knelt or sat out the national anthem before games in protest, saying they should be fired.
Sessions, who has sparked controversy over immigration, race and other issues, planned to talk about free speech on college campuses.
It’s a fraught topic nationally, with many conservatives saying that only liberal viewpoints are welcome on many college campuses, with political correctness stifling free exchange and overly sensitive students finding alternative viewpoints too offensive to hear.
After unexpectedly violent protests forced the shutdown of a speech by provocative writer Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley in February, Trump suggested that federal funding should be withheld if a state flagship school couldn’t tolerate free speech. Since then, students have tried to host controversial speakers on campus, with mixed results; over the weekend, Yiannopoulos returned to Berkeley, but not with the week-long provocation about free speech that he had sought. The school spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security measures, after far-left and far-right extremists had battled on campus and nearby this year.
Berkeley has been the most visible flashpoint, but similar philosophical fights have played out at many other campuses as well.
Sessions was expected to talk about free speech on campuses nationally.
“He is a very poor spokesperson, particularly at a law school, to be discussing free speech, given his own actions and the actions of the administration he serves,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at the law school.
“To invite somebody who purports to be an authority on free speech who so profoundly misunderstands the theories and law of free speech in our country … is laughable,” she said.
Some faculty members issued a statement Monday night, saying they acknowledge his right to speak on campus but “condemn the hypocrisy of Attorney General Sessions speaking about free speech.”
Randy Barnett, director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution at Georgetown Law, which is hosting Sessions, and which offers programs “placing special emphasis on how best to remain faithful to the Constitution’s text,” did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“While I agree that students should feel free to voice their opinions and beliefs in the classroom, the First Amendment grants this protection outside of the classroom as well,” said Richard Hand, a third-year student.
“It’s hypocritical for a member of the Trump administration to act as a champion free speech while the president has consistently mocked and insulted those trying to exercise that very same right.
“In law school, I’ve learned the most from my colleagues who have different opinions than me. I’ve also seen that people can disagree without disrespecting or insulting each other. I’m sure the attorney general and president would be welcome to sit in on a class,” Hand said.
Some objected to Sessions himself, and his views.
“No fascists on campus,” a student wrote. “A university that claims to care about the travel ban and DACA rescindment shouldn’t invite the man who defended both. Bring any signs and banners you can …”
Some objected to the way the audience was drawn up.
The event was hosted by a center at the school, and they handled the invitations, according to a law school spokeswoman.
The invitations were issued in the same way they typically are, Tanya Weinberg affirmed, without an attempt to assure an ideologically sympathetic crowd. Given limited capacity, she said, the school’s policy has held that the hosting organization determines the guest list. In this case, the Center for the Constitution decided to invite students who have attended past events held by the center, and Barnett invited students from his classes.
Scholars at the center are invited, she said, along with some “personal/VIP” guests invited by the center and the Justice Department.
Some students expressed dismay that their own invitations seemed to be revoked as the day went on, with many sharing a message they had received: “You RSVP’d earlier today to an invitation to hear Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sponsored by the Center for the Constitution. Regrettably, the email you subsequently received indicating you have a seat for the event was in error. Our records indicate that you were not part of the Center’s student invitation list, which includes student fellows of the Center (students who signed up to attend events sponsored by the Center) and students enrolled in the classes taught this semester by the Center’s Director, Professor Randy Barnett. As stated in the initial invitation email, the invitation was non-transferable and intended only for the individual to whom it was sent. Unfortunately, we will not be albe to offer you a seat for the event.
“We regret any inconvenience.”
Statement by some faculty members: