NEW YORK—Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ remarks Tuesday at the Turning Point USA High School Leadership Summit pointed to important concerns regarding restrictions on free speech on campus, but injected needlessly dismissive and insulting rhetoric to convey a misleading and one-sided portrait of today’s campus climate for free expression, PEN America said in a statement today.

On July 24, speaking at the Turning Point summit, Attorney General Sessions criticized campus event cancellations, violent protests, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and efforts to address bias and racial harassment. Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that works to “identify, educate, train, and organize students” to promote conservative principles, is also known for its Professor Watchlist, a directory generated in 2016 that purports to “expose” college professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

In his remarks, Sessions denounced what he described as a “cadre—mostly on the hard left,” working to “openly and systematically… deny Americans the right to speak their mind.” The Attorney General cited as examples a series of incidents of disruptions and punishments for speech many of which were cited in an earlier September 2017 address by Sessions at Georgetown University. 

“Attorney General Sessions is correct when he says that the First Amendment is not a partisan issue,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “The Attorney General legitimately called out policies and practices that impair open debate on campus, urging students and administrations to strengthen respect for open discourse by rejecting free speech zones, speech codes and other measures that constrict expression. But Sessions’ harsh description of students as ‘sanctimonious’ snowflakes and his one-sided list of examples of speech infringements miscast the argument in ways that will only deepen the rancor over campus speech. Maintaining that threats to speech originate only with the left, Sessions ignores numerous, widely-publicized examples of threatened and actual reprisals by conservatives against speech with this these disagree. These incidents include demands for Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar to be fired for criticism of former First Lady Barbara Bush, violent threats lobbed at Princeton professor Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor for her pointed criticism of President Trump, or this month’s calls from Kansas’s Republican governor for the removal of a political art piece at the University of Kansas. Nor does Sessions reference the so-called Professor Watchlist maintained by the organization that hosted him, Turning Point USA. In a frontal attack on academic freedom, the Watchlist website invokes McCarthy-era tropes in an effort to intimidate and discredit left-leaning professors. In using his bully pulpit to call out concerns over the state of campus speech, Sessions should practice what he preaches when it comes to non-partisanship.”

Since 2015, PEN America has worked closely with college campuses throughout the United States on issues of campus free speech, diversity, and inclusion, publishing in 2016 And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities, and in 2017 Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire, examining a spate of bills that would chill campus expression through imposing of mandatory discipline and rollbacks of protest rights.

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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. pen.org

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