NEW YORK—On the occasion of the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, PEN America urged the Senate to ask probing questions on Senator Sessions’s view towards free speech, including clarification of Sessions’ reported statements that may indicate a harsh line against free speech for civil rights and minority organizations under a Trump Administration.

President-elect Trump has previously indicated that that he may order his Attorney General to investigate members of the Black Lives Matter movement for speech that he believed was criminal. In a July 18 phone interview on the O’Reilly Factor during the Republican National Convention, then-candidate Trump argued that he had seen Black Lives Matter protestors “essentially calling [for] death to police” and that “you have to look into that very seriously.”  When O’Reilly—referencing Americans’ right to free speech and free assembly—asked if this meant Trump would order his attorney general to investigate for possible charges, Trump responded that “we are going to have to perhaps talk with the attorney general about it or do something, but at a minimum we are going to have to be watching.”

Given this lack of clarity in the President-elect’s remarks, PEN America stated today, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee must clarify Senator Sessions’ understanding of what constitutes permissible political speech, and ensure that Senator Sessions will uphold our nation’s constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly.

Senator Jeff Sessions has received significant criticism from civil rights groups throughout his career. In 1986, Sessions was rejected as a nominee for a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee, after concerns over a number of “racially insensitive statements” Sessions had made as a prosecutor. The Committee heard testimony from a Department of Justice lawyer that Sessions saw civil rights groups the NAACP and the ACLU as “un-American”, while a former assistant U.S. attorney testified that Sessions had stated that groups such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were “un-American organizations teaching anti-American values.” Sessions himself, in testifying before the Committee, recalled his statements to the effect of civil rights organizations “hurt[ing] their position” when they “demand more than is legitimate” or “ask[] for things beyond what they are justified in asking.”

In light of these comments, PEN America further stated, the Senate Judiciary Committee should clarify Senator Sessions’s position on what he believes is a “legitimate” or “justified” position for a civil rights organization to hold. The Committee should also inquire as to whether Senator Session believes that any groups or movements today are “un-American,” and evaluate his response to determine whether it affects his impartiality in upholding the rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

“The Attorney-General is our nation’s foremost defender of our nation’s free speech rights,” explained Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “The Senate Judiciary Committee must ensure that Senator Sessions is prepared and able to guard free speech for all Americans, even those with whom he and President-elect Trump politically disagree.”

PEN America, a group dedicated to celebrating and safeguarding free expression in the United States and around the world, has previously reported on infringements of press freedom during the coverage of the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. This week, PEN America announced the launch of its #LouderTogether campaign, meant to fortify free expression and media freedoms in the United States in a political atmosphere grown increasingly hostile to such freedoms.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

James Tager, Free Expression Programs Manager: [email protected], +1 646.779.4827