Sessions Calls for a “National Re-Commitment to Free Speech on College Campuses”

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sharply criticized what he considers incidents of college and universities suppressing free speech, creating “echo chambers” on campus, limiting student expression to “free speech zones,” and allowing protestors to shut down speakers they disagree with by using threats of violence.  While comparing mask-wearing, so-called, “anti-fascist” activists to members of the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions remarked that freedom of thought is under attack on campus and pointed to incidents at Middlebury and the University of California, Berkeley as examples.  Most of the speech was dedicated to recognizing what the AG views as problems on campus, but, significantly, the address indicated the DOJ’s interest in, and attention to, addressing issues of campus free speech and expression.

Outside the speech venue, faculty and students at Georgetown Law School amassed on the school’s steps to protests the AG’s appearance, including taking a knee in solidarity with the NFL players who did the same over the weekend.  Many of the protestors spoke as well, remarking that their actions were a protest against the “chilling of speech” represented by Sessions and the Trump Administration.

In the most important part of the address, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would step up its efforts to become more involved in campus free speech cases.  That effort included the DOJ filing a Statement of Interest (SOI) in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.  In that case, a student is challenging the free expression policies of Georgia Gwinnett College.  The student alleges that the college’s speech policies restrict student expression to “free speech zones” on campus and forbids any expression “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” on campus.  The student, Chike Uzuegbunam, wanted to speak with other students about his religion, but was requested to confine his activities to the campus’ free speech zones.  After meeting the request, college officials ordered him to stop after deeming his actions to be “disorderly conduct” that violated the college’s policies against  “the peace and/or comfort” of others.

The DOJ’s SOI argues that the student’s allegations sufficiently represent a violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, indicating that the college’s speech policies were not content neutral, established an impermissible “heckler’s veto,” and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest.  The AG added: “A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue.  Which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle.  We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.”

The reaction to Sessions’ remarks has been mixed.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education applauded the remarks, while PEN America criticized the AG for failing to mention recent incidents of “hate speech and hate crimes” on campus in his address.

Moving forward, it is unclear whether the remarks signal a major policy reorganization at the DOJ or what a “national recommitment” could mean for current campus controversies, such as faculty speech and academic freedom issues, as well as uninvited, outside speakers like Richard Spencer and others requesting space on campus. (See our blog post on this issue here.)  It is clear, however, that the DOJ has taken an interest in campus speech issues and colleges might be well-served to review their student expression policies.