In speech, Jeff Sessions slams universities for stifling free speech
Today’s typical American university clamps down on free speech, pushes political correctness, and shelters the “fragile egos” of its students, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared Tuesday in a talk singling out UC Berkeley for the purported ills.
Speaking at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., Sessions offered examples of public and private universities where protesters have prevented people from speaking, including at Middlebury College, where students assaulted a professor and a guest speaker, and at Brown University because a co-sponsor of the talk was a Jewish group.
Turning to UC Berkeley, Sessions mentioned that the university recently spent more than $600,000 on police so conservative speaker Ben Shapiro could have his say without disruption. Yet, despite the lengths to which the campus went to protect Shapiro’s right to speak, Sessions cited the case as an example of how universities “coddle” and “encourage” their “crackdown on speech.”
He then mocked UC Berkeley for offering counseling to students who felt their “sense of safety or belonging” were threatened by the Shapiro speech.
“To my knowledge, no one fainted, no one was unsafe. No one needed counseling,” Sessions told the audience.
Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman, denied that the university coddles students.
“Coddling is a pejorative term,” he said. “Why shouldn’t a university respond to the needs and interests of its students?”
The campus offered counseling because “students on the left and on the right” asked for support, Mogulof said. Conservative students have been “verbally assaulted at their events,” and others who have heard rhetoric “targeting Muslims, transgenders, homosexuals — the list goes on” from Milo Yiannopoulos and other far-right commentators invited to campus wanted help from the university, he said.
The attorney general did not mention that UC Berkeley is spending another $800,000 on security for the abruptly canceled Free Speech Week that was to feature Yiannopoulos and other right-wing speakers. The student group hosting the event canceled it, but the university had already contracted for hundreds of extra police.
“When it comes to free speech, we believe that our actions speak louder than any words,” Mogulof said.
On Tuesday, the officers were put to good use as dozens of right- and left-wing opponents scuffled with each other on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and at the university-owned People’s Park in Berkeley.
Right-wing activists from a group called Patriot Prayer demonstrated because, they claimed, the city of Berkeley and the university prohibit their free speech. They took group photos, chanted and did push-ups around campus. One man wearing a President Trump cap tore down posters that advocated for immigrant students.
Among the demonstrators was Kyle “Stickman” Chapman, who decried what he called a war on whites and said the ongoing demonstrations are a “battle for Berkeley.” Chapman was arrested at a March protest and charged with possessing a lead-filled stick. He faces the possibility of up to eight years in prison because of a previous violent felony conviction in Texas.
Sessions’ speech played into the polarization that has overtaken the country since the election of Trump, in which campus free speech has emerged as the monkey in the middle: Many on the left claim that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, while many on the right complain that protesters deny them their free-speech rights.
At Sessions’ own speech on Tuesday, organizers excluded some students and law professors, while taking only friendly questions from the audience, according to the Washington Post.
A spokesman from the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
The speech also came as Trump has said repeatedly that NFL players should be fired for exercising their First Amendment right to kneel during the national anthem in protest of the country’s treatment of black people.
Pen America, a journal that advocates for freedom of expression, issued a statement saying their organization agreed with Sessions that “the defense of free speech rights on campus must be uncompromising,” but it said the examples Sessions gave ignored instances where right-leaning groups had compromised the speech of left-leaning groups.
The group has also cataloged what it said were numerous examples in which the Trump administration has impinged on free speech, by stopping agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, from communicating with the public.
In staking his claim on campus free speech, Sessions cited a 2017 study of 450 public and private campuses where “40 percent maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutionally protected speech.”
A closer look at the study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that advocates for campus free speech, shows that the group considers it an infringement on free speech if a campus policy is “broadly applicable to campus expression.”
Thus, UC Riverside received the group’s most severe rating, “red,” because it has a policy identifying sexual harassment as everything from offensive jokes to rape.
UC Berkeley received a rating only slightly less restrictive, “yellow,” because it restricts public activities on Sproul Plaza between midnight and 6 a.m.
Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, said UC doesn’t restrict free speech.
“Upholding and facilitating the rights afforded by the First Amendment are critical to democracy, on our campuses and throughout our nation,” Napolitano said. “So, too, is ensuring the safety of our students, staff, and visitors.”