Sessions: ‘Freedom of Thought and Speech’ Are Under Attack on U.S. College Campuses

By Melanie Arter | September 27, 2017 | 12:58 PM EDT

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Screenshot of C-SPAN video)

( - In a speech delivered at Georgetown University, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday warned that free speech is under attack on U.S. college campuses, citing recent examples where school administrators banned speech deemed offensive, set up “cramped” free speech zones, disinvited speakers and even offered counseling ahead of planned speeches.

Sessions pointed to a survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that found that 40 percent of U.S. college speech codes “substantially infringe” on protected speech.

“In 2017, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed 450 colleges and universities across the country and found that 40 percent maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutionally protected speech. Of the public colleges surveyed, which are bound by the First Amendment, fully one-third had written policies banning disfavored speech,” he said.

Sessions cited some examples of university policies that infringe on free speech.

“For example, at Boise State University in Idaho, the Student Code of Conduct prohibits ‘[c]onduct that a reasonable person would find offensive.’ At Clemson University in South Carolina, the Student Code of Conduct bans any verbal or physical act that creates an ‘offensive educational, work or living environment,’” the attorney general said.

“But who 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,” he said.

In another example of university speech codes that infringe on constitutionally protected free speech, Sessions pointed to “free speech zones” that some colleges set up.

“In addition to written speech codes, many colleges now deign to ‘tolerate’ free speech only in certain, geographically limited, ‘free speech zones.’ For example, a student recently filed suit against Pierce College, a public school in southern California, alleging that it prohibited him from distributing Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution outside the school’s free speech zone,” he said.

“The size of this free speech zone? 616 square feet—an area barely the size of a couple of college dorm rooms. These cramped zones are eerily similar to what the Supreme Court warned against in the seminal 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case about student speech: ‘Freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right could be exercised only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven,’” he added.

Furthermore, some colleges “silenced speech” with “the heckler’s veto,” a way to control who speaks and what they can say, Sessions noted.

“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,” the attorney general said.

“These administrators seem to forget that, as the Supreme Court put it in Watson v. City of Memphis more than 50 years ago, ‘constitutional rights may not be denied simply because of hostility to their assertion or exercise,’” he said. “This permissive attitude toward the heckler’s veto has spawned a cottage industry of protesters who have quickly learned that school administrators will capitulate to their demands.”

As an example, Sessions pointed to Middlebury College, where “student protesters violently shut down a debate between an invited speaker and one of the school’s own professors.”

“As soon as the event began, the protesters shouted for 20 minutes, preventing the debate from occurring. When the debaters attempted to move to a private broadcasting location, the protesters—many in masks, a common tactic also used by the detestable Ku Klux Klan—pulled fire alarms, surrounded the speakers, and began physically assaulting them,” he said.

“In short, Middlebury students engaged in a violent riot to ensure that neither they nor their fellow students would hear speech they may have disagreed with,” Sessions added.

Free speech violations on college campuses cross “creeds, races, issues, and religions,” the attorney general noted.

“At Brown University, a speech to promote transgender rights was cancelled after students protested because a Jewish group co-sponsored the lecture. Virginia Tech disinvited an African American speaker because he had written on race issues and they worried about protests disrupting the event,” Sessions said.

The attorney general accused school administrations of bending to, coddling and encouraging this type of behavior. He also highlighted the tactics of Antifa protesters.

“Just over a week ago, after the Orwellian-named ‘anti-fascist’ protesters had successfully shut down numerous campus speaker events in recent months with violent riots, Berkeley was reportedly 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,” he said.

“In advance, the school offered ‘counseling’ to any students or faculty whose ‘sense of safety or belonging’ was threatened by a speech from Ben Shapiro—a 33-year-old Harvard trained lawyer who has been frequently targeted by anti-Semites for his Jewish faith and who vigorously condemns hate speech on both the left and right,” Sessions said.

“In the end, Mr. Shapiro spoke to a packed house, and to my knowledge, no one fainted, no one was unsafe. No one needed counseling,” he said. “Yet, after this small victory for free speech, a student speaking to a reporter said in reaction, ‘I don’t think Berkley should host any controversial speakers, on either side.’ That is, perhaps, the worst lesson to take away from this episode.”

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