Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussed the importance of free speech at universities at a Department of Justice forum Monday.
Sessions’ remarks kicked off the DOJ’s Forum on Free Speech in Higher Education, a multi-panel discussion event highlighting the significance of the First Amendment on the anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution. Sessions discussed the importance of the First Amendment and described how the amendment safeguards other American freedoms.
“James Madison was clear – he said freedom of speech is ‘the only effectual guardian of every other right,’” Sessions said.
Sessions said the First Amendment has faced numerous threats throughout American history, including the Alien and Sedition Acts, slavery and segregation, and religious and nonreligious discrimination.
Sessions said one of the greatest threats to free speech now is restrictive speech codes at higher education institutions. Universities – once places of discussion – have become venues against free speech, where dissenting opinions are suppressed, he said.
“That should shock us,” Sessions said. “If disturbing someone’s comfort is the standard for banning speech, then anybody can stop anybody else from speaking their mind by acting offended.”
Sessions added that the constitutional guarantee of free speech was invaluable to the leaders of America’s civil rights movements because those men and women presented new ideas that were antithetical to the beliefs of many Americans at the time.
“Abraham Lincoln disturbed the comfort of slave owners, Dr. Martin Luther King disturbed the comfort of segregationists, Susan B. Anthony disturbed the comfort of quite a lot of people,” he said.
Sessions said a cultural shift prioritizing politics and passion over principle has led college campuses to abandon free speech.
“This is not America,” Sessions said. “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 things.”
Sessions added that his job as attorney general is to defend the Constitution and the civil rights of those who wish to speak on college campuses.
He cited several nationwide incidents of students having their First Amendment rights infringed upon at colleges, and said the justice department has often stepped in to combat such cases. He discussed, among other examples, one incident at the University of Michigan, where the DOJ filed a statement of interest supporting a lawsuit against the school for implementing a code against “demeaning,” “bothersome” or “hurtful” speech.
He said that days after the DOJ filed the statement, the university changed its speech policies.
Sessions said the DOJ will continue to participate in lawsuits to protect First Amendment rights on campus.
“No third-level bureaucrat, committee, top official at any university has the power to take them away,” he said. “This has gone too far – it must end.”