Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Credit: C-SPAN.)
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26, 2017 — In a speech today at Georgetown University, Attorney General Jeff Sessions focused attention on the state of free speech on America’s college and university campuses. “The right of free speech does not exist only to protect the ideas upon which most of us agree at a given moment in time,” he noted, urging the students in attendance to “make your voices heard, [and] to defend the rights of others to do the same.”
During his remarks, Sessions recognized the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s work tracking restrictive campus speech codes through our Spotlight database and our lawsuit at Pierce College. He also announced that the Department of Justice will now submit statements of interest in support of student lawsuits that seek to vindicate free speech rights on campus.
“The First Amendment is the law of the land on public campuses, but for decades colleges have been treating that fundamental right as though it’s optional,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “By supporting student litigation, the Department of Justice can help us ensure that all students can express themselves freely on campus.”
Sessions’ remarks come amid high-profile campus controversies. While FIRE has seen the number of blatantly unconstitutional written speech codes trend downward in recent years, there has been an uptick in efforts to disinvite controversial speakers of all political persuasions, a rise in the use of bias response teams to monitor unpopular speech, and unprecedented violence aimed at silencing off-campus speakers.
“Liberal democracies can work out their political differences nonviolently because of the debate and dissent that free speech makes possible,” said Shibley. “As campuses struggle with an uptick in violence in response to controversial speech, we are glad to see the Department of Justice bring much-needed attention to this issue.”
Sessions joins a bipartisan chorus of public officials who have expressed support for free speech on campus in recent years. This summer, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell both condemned efforts to shut down viewpoints on college campuses. And in 2015, then-President Barack Obama twice defended the importance of free speech on campus. “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” he said in a September 2015 town hall.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org