Georgetown Law students kneel in protest of Sessions’ speech

  • Photo by Gage Skidmore

Students and faculty gathered at the steps of McDonough Hall at Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday, Sept. 26, to protest a speech given by Attorney General Jeff Session.

The topic of Sessions’ address was free speech on college campuses — an issue he was not fit to speak about, according to the protestors.  

“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions said. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Sessions’ speech comes near the end of a very long year rife with controversy and violence surrounding free speech on college campuses. Violent protests like the one against conservative speaker Milo Yiannopooulos at University of California Berkeley, and the disruption of speeches such as Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College, forced college campuses to shut down events that gave speakers platforms to share controversial views.

Sessions said that colleges have become too tolerant of the “heckler’s veto.”

“This is not right. This is not the great tradition of America,” he said. “And, yet, school administrators bend to this behavior. In effect, they coddle and encourage it.”

Students and faculty knelt outside in protest to the Attorney General’s speech — a nod to NFL athletes who knelt during the national anthem. The protestors then took turns speaking into a bullhorn, criticizing Sessions.

“A law school is a place for people to learn about the deepest principles that undergird our democratic republic. Those principles are trampled upon by Attorney General sessions, in particular, and Donald Trump,” Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown law professor said to the Washington Post. “You cannot invite people who so thoroughly threaten the basic premises of American law to a campus and not speak up if your mission in life is to educate people about the American legal system.”

Prior to the event, more than 30 Georgetown Law faculty signed a letter which acknowledged Sessions’ right to address the law school, but condemned the topic of his speech as hypocritical.

The professors pointed to Trump’s recent remarks about professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem, calling on them to be fired and labeling them as “sons of bitches.” The letter contrasts the president’s treatment of those athletes to that of participants in a white supremacist rally, some of whom he said were “very fine people. 

The statement also touched on the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to have a web hosting company hand over data associated with a protest of President Trump’s 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,” the professors wrote in the letter. “A man who fails to recognize paradigmatic violations of the First Amendment is a poor choice to speak about free speech on campuses.” 

During a question and answer section following Sessions’ speech, the attorney general defended President Trump’s remarks about the NFL protestors. Sessions said that it was a mistake for NFL players to protest police brutality against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem.

There are many ways "these players, with all the assets that they have, can express their political views other than, in effect, denigrating the symbols of our nation," he said.

Joshua Spielman, a Georgetown law student, was one of the students invited to attend the event. He told the Washington Post that he agreed with what Sessions said during his speech.

“I find that there are students who believe themselves to be in the ideological majority without understanding that there may be students who want to hear a free flow of ideas,” Spielman said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with everything that the administration has to say. And I think it’s important as a university for us to ensure that all ideas are heard. Because if you don’t hear all ideas, then correctly, as the attorney general said, you can’t possibly formulate your own.” 

The speech was initially reserved for a small group of students and faculty, but a lottery page was set up for students to sign up for seats, said Daniel Blauser president of the Georgetown Law American Constitution Society. Those that had followed the formal channels to attend the event later received a message revoking their invitation due to an error.

“It is extraordinarily hypocritical that AG Sessions wants to lecture future attorneys about the importance of free speech on campus while excluding the wider student body from his very own ‘safe space,’” Blauser said in a statement. “We welcomed the debate, but sadly the school seems to want to limit attendance to help ensure a sympathetic audience.” 

An estimated 130 students were uninvited to the event.