Columns

Sessions on Campus Speech Rules: 'Time to Put a Stake in Its Heart'

Attorney General Jeff Sessions waves to guests after giving a speech at the U.S. Attorney's Office on Sept. 13, 2018, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a Justice Department forum on higher education today that limiting free speech deemed offensive on college campuses “has gone too far” and “it’s time to stand up to the bullies on campus, bullies in our culture.”

“As Americans, we know that it’s far better to have a messy and contentious debate than to suppress the voices of dissenters, even though on occasion we might forget these values,” Sessions said. “…Defending the Constitution, defending civil rights, doing justice compels this Department of Justice to defend the right of speech, expression, religion, press, petition and assembly, and defend these rights we will. And the most important time to defend a valued right is when it is being attacked or eroded.”

Sessions cited a survey that found 40 percent of colleges and universities “maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutionally protected rights.”

“Of the public colleges surveyed, which are legally bound by the First Amendment, fully one-third had written policies banning disfavored speech,” he added.

He lashed out at small “free speech zones” on campuses and rules against activities that could “disturb the comfort of persons” attending school there.

“If disturbing someone’s comfort is the standard for banning speech, then anybody can stop anyone else from speaking their mind by acting offended. This is nowhere close to a legitimate First Amendment standard,” he said, citing in his examples of DOJ involvement a statement of interest filed in May in a lawsuit against the University of Michigan. “The university sought to forbid harassment and bullying and actions motivated by bias. They also forbade speech that is interpreted to be demeaning, bothersome or hurtful. But the rules did not give clear definition about what any of these terms mean.”

“There are radicals out there that have openly and systematically justified actions that would deny Americans the right to speak out against their favored ideological agenda,” Sessions argued. “We must put and end to such nonsense. It’s time to put a stake in its heart. We have to stand up to it, and we will do so.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at the forum that “debates and disagreements about public policy and political leadership are essential to building good citizens” and the question is “how to respond when college administrators seek to prohibit or punish speech protected by the Constitution.”

“On college campuses, students hear about different perspectives, test conflicting arguments, and learn how to decide for themselves what is true, what is right, and what is just.  To do that properly, colleges must expose students to a range of alternatives,” he said.

“Students need to learn how to consider ideas that they do not like.  That educational project requires free speech. Yet we repeatedly hear about examples of hostility to free speech and viewpoint diversity on college campuses.”