BY HANK REICHMAN
Dozens of Georgetown University students, joined by law professors, gathered this morning to protest a speech by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The faculty members initially took a knee and later linked arms. Inside the hall where Sessions spoke, a line of students sitting near the back stood up and placed black tape over their mouths as the attorney general concluded his remarks. The students complained that despite reports that Sessions would speak out against alleged violations of free speech on campus, students who had initially been invited to the talk were later informed that their invitations had been rescinded.
Sessions addressed a select group of students affiliated with the school’s Center for the Constitution, which promotes the conservative constitutional interpretation known as originalism. The attorney general was in conversation with the center’s director, Professor Randy Barnett, who asked a series of pre-screened questions.
“It’s extraordinarily hypocritical that Attorney General Session would be lecturing future attorneys about the importance of free speech on campus while actively excluding the wider student body,” one law student told The New Republic. “It’s just amazing. I still can’t really believe it’s happening like this.”
Greyson Wallis, a Georgetown law student from Bradenton, Fla., was among those who stood up after Sessions delivered his remark, the Washington Post reported. “It seemed like they were rescinding those invites because they didn’t want any sort of hostile environment, and I can understand not wanting to have a violent environment, but that’s not at all what we were trying to do,” Wallis said. “We’re law students. We all just wanted to hear what he had to say and let him know where we differ from his opinions. Unfortunately, his message of opening yourself up to the other side isn’t going to reach the people that he wants it to reach. Because they weren’t allowed to be in here today.”
Some of the roughly 100 protesters who gathered outside at Georgetown’s law school wore duct tape over their mouths. They held signs that proclaimed, “DEPORT HATE,” FREE SPEECH IS NOT HATE SPEECH,” and “Sessions is afraid of questions.”
Prior to the event more than thirty Georgetown Law faculty members also signed a letter in which they acknowledged Sessions’ right to speak but “condemn[ed] the hypocrisy of Attorney General Sessions speaking about free speech.” Here is the text of that letter:
A Statement from Members of the Georgetown University Law Center Regarding Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ 9/26 Visit
On Tuesday, September 26, U.S. Attorney General Sessions will give remarks at Georgetown University Law Center, at the invitation of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, which is led by our colleague Professor Randy Barnett. Attorney General Sessions’ topic has been announced as “free speech on college campuses.” We acknowledge our colleague’s right to invite Attorney General Sessions to speak on campus. However, we, the undersigned, condemn the hypocrisy of Attorney General Sessions speaking about free speech.
Attorney General Sessions is a key cabinet member in an administration headed by a President who spent last weekend denouncing athletes engaged in free expression and calling for them to be fired. President Trump calls African-American professional football players kneeling in quiet protest “sons of bitches” and angry, armed white supremacists “very fine people.”
Attorney General Sessions’ own office is currently prosecuting Desiree Fairooz for unlawful conduct; her alleged crime is laughing for a few seconds during Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearings last January and then loudly protesting her unlawful arrest. In August, the Justice Department issued a warrant to aBweb hosting company named DreamHost to obtain the identifying and contact information of subscribers organizing an online protest of the Trump Inauguration.
These are just three examples of governmental action antithetical to freedom of speech and association for which Attorney General Sessions is either closely affiliated or directly responsible. This kind of government chilling of speech is precisely what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is meant to prevent. A man who fails to recognize paradigmatic violations of the First Amendment is a poor choice to speak about free speech on campuses.
Attorney General Sessions’ positions with respect to other civil rights are just as troubling. He has made clear that his Department of Justice will not pursue federal investigations into police shootings of unarmed black men—the very shootings that athletes are silently protesting. Instead, he dismantled the DOJ agency (Countering Violent Extremism) designed to investigate domestic extremists, like the one in Charlottesville who killed a woman and wounded many others, replacing it with an agency that investigates Islamic Extremists (the agency is now called Countering Islamic Extremism). As a prosecutor, he brought a misguided prosecution of black voting rights activists and continues to this day to perpetrate the myth of voter fraud. He is also the chief architect of the dismantling of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Again, whatever our other objections to Attorney General Sessions’ views and positions, we fully acknowledge our colleague’s right to invite Attorney General Sessions to speak at Georgetown University Law Center. But we will not be fooled. 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.
Alicia Plerhoples, Professor of Law
Heidi Li Feldman, Professor of Law
Vida B. Johnson, Visiting Professor
Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy
John M. Copacino, Director, Criminal Justice Clinic
Anthony E. Cook, Professor of Law
Rachel Camp, Visiting Associate Professor
Rima Sirota, Professor of Legal Research and Writing
Aderson Francois, Professor of Law and Director, Civil Rights Clinic
David Luban, University Professor and Professor of Law and Philosophy
Deborah Epstein, Professor of Law
Richard L. Roe, Professor of Law
Wallace J. Mlyniec, Professor of Law
Michael Diamond, Professor of Law
Allegra McLeod, Professor of Law
Sherally Munshi, Associate Professor of Law
Girardeau A. Spann, Professor of Law
Stephen Cohen, Professor of Law
Brian Wolfman, Associate Professor of Law
Jarrod F. Reich, Associate Professor of Legal Research and Writing
Tanina Rostain, Professor of Law
Timothy Westmoreland, Professor from Practice
Philip G. Schrag, Delaney Family Professor of Public Interest Law
Nan Hunter, Professor of Law
Kristin Henning, Professor of Law & Director, Juvenile Justice Clinic
Erica Hashimoto, Professor of Law
Abbe Smith, Professor of Law
Alvaro Santos, Professor of Law
Laura M. Moy, Deputy Director, Center on Privacy & Technology
Christy E. Lopez, Distinguished Visitor from Practice
Naomi Mezey, Professor of Law