US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has defended President Donald Trump’s criticism of NFL protests, telling an audience at Georgetown University in Washington DC that the “President has free speech rights too”.
Sessions called the protests by NFL team owners and players a “big mistake”, adding that it will “weaken the commitment we have to this nation”, ABC News reported.
Sessions’ speech, which focused on First Amendment rights, came amid President Trump’s rants against NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem, suggesting in a tweet on Tuesday that the NFL should establish rules barring players from kneeling.
Several students, dressed in “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, sat silently with tape over their mouths as Sessions addressed the audience.
The attorney general, who was hosted by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution at Georgetown University Law Center, faced backlash even before the event began.
Before Sessions took the stage, Georgetown Law faculty and others knelt outside in protest of his speech. A group of more than 30 Georgetown Law Center faculty members also condemned the “hypocrisy” of his speech.
“We acknowledge our colleague’s right to invite Attorney General Sessions to speak on campus. However, we, the undersigned, condemn the hypocrisy, about Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking about free speech,” according to a statement from the group.
“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,'” the statement continued.
During his remarks, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice is filing a statement of interest in a campus free speech case this week and we will be filing more in the weeks and months to come.
“We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come,” he said in prepared remarks.
Sessions spoke specifically about a public college in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he said a state official had students jailed for handing out copies of the United States Constitution last year.
“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack. 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 homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos,” Sessions said.
He derided student codes of conduct related to speech that he said “substantially infringe on constitutionally protected speech.”
Sessions also railed against “free-speech zones” on campus, saying that they are “eerily similar to what the Supreme Court warned against” in its 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision.
During his remarks, Sessions blamed school administrators for favoring “heckler’s disruptive tactics” over a speaker’s First Amendment rights.
“And let me be clear that protecting free speech does not mean condoning violence like we saw recently in Charlottesville. Indeed, I call upon universities to stand up against those who would silence free expression by violence or other means on their campuses,” he said.