Jeff Sessions: The DOJ will help students fight for free speech on campus
Good news from today’s address at Georgetown, which included a shout-out to Ben Shapiro for braving the wrath of Antifa (“the Orwellian-named ‘anti-fascist’ protesters,” as Sessions correctly describes them) to speak at Berkeley two weeks ago.
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 from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come. To that end, we are 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.
The case he mentions is Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a lawsuit brought by a student at Georgia Gwinnett College against the school’s administration. It’s a shrewd choice politically, not only because the plaintiff was evangelizing on behalf of his Christian faith but because the facts of the case are, well, bananas:
In July, college officials stopped Uzuegbunam from talking with fellow students about Christianity and handing out religious literature in a plaza outside the college library. After Uzuegbunam complied, campus officials informed him that GGC policies also prohibited him from speaking privately with students about his faith unless he provides three days advance notice and speaks only in one of the two small speech zones during the two to four hours a day they are open during the week.
In August, Uzuegbunam followed these restrictions and spoke and distributed literature peacefully at a small patio area that is one of the speech zones. After 20 minutes, campus police arrived and told him to stop sharing his faith because of “some calls from people complaining.”
Georgia Gwinnett is a public school. Under the First Amendment, the government does have some leeway in restricting the time, place, and manner of speech on public property, You don’t get to bring your megaphone to the public park at 3 a.m. when people are trying to sleep, for instance. Calling the cops on a kid for handing out leaflets in some free-speech holding pen, though? Time, place, and manner restrictions are supposed to serve an “important” government interest and be narrowly tailored to that end. Good luck to Georgia Gwinnett in making the case that an important goal was served in preventing a religious believer from politely offering people free literature.
Sessions’s speech is solid, worth reading in full if you can’t spare the time to watch. One line jumped out at observers as ironic: “In this great land, the government does not tell you what to think or what to say.” True, but sometimes the president encourages your boss to fire you if you don’t think or say what he likes. The first question to Sessions in the Q&A after his speech (at 25:00) is about the NFL protests, in fact, in which he’s asked if he has any comment. A few minutes earlier in his speech he noted Robert Jackson’s famous line that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” The NFL question was an obvious opportunity to point back to that as an ethic all government officials should bear in mind but instead he stays on safe political ground — obviously the players can’t be prosecuted, he says, but protesting during the anthem is a big mistake, Trump has the free-speech right to criticize the players, etc etc. That answer should buy him a little more time as AG. But maybe only a little.