On Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered an extraordinarily dystopian speech at Georgetown Law’s Center for the Constitution, warning students that free speech rights are under attack by the very institutions they have entrusted to open their minds to new ideas and the marvels of diversity of thought.
The college campus, Sessions said forebodingly, has been transformed from a haven for academic inquiry and free expression into “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
Had Sessions changed “political correctness” to “ethno-nationalistic conformity,” that line would have quite accurately described the current White House. If the past few days have showed us anything about the health of free expression in America, it’s not that it’s under attack by an unrepresentative handful of 19-year-olds, but rather that the chief threat to it right now is Sessions’s own boss, the president of the United States.
For the past four days, President Trump has been consumed with using his position to call for the punishment of professional athletes who have engaged in political protests of racist policing. It should be noted that this is a civil rights issue in which Sessions has showed no interest in acting on behalf of victims. As attorney general, he has consistently taken steps to undermine Obama administration initiatives to reform troubled police departments, even calling the Justice Department “the leading advocate for law enforcement in America.”
Trump launched his first round of attacks on Friday, while campaigning for Luther Strange in Alabama, in the special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sessions. Trump snarled, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'” His diatribe persisted through a weekend of protests by NFL players, coaches and owners. “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” he tweeted on Sunday, one of 24 tweets he has issued on the topic.
Trump is not alone in using his administration’s position and power to pressure private companies to fire employees who express political views contrary to his, or critical of him. Earlier this month, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in the White House briefing room that ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill’s tweet that Trump is a white supremacist “is a fireable offense.”
Such abuse of the office of the president to call for the silencing and firing of private individuals is the real threat to free expression — one that is far more serious a threat than that posed by college students or public university administrators.
Of course, there have been disturbing instances of illiberal behavior on the left, such as the one at Middlebury College, where students shut down a speech by the author Charles Murray and even injured a faculty member. But the school disciplined dozens of students involved, and the incident is hardly representative of students across the country.
Sessions’s speech Tuesday strained to portray the national state of play as one in which conservatives are the victims of constitutional deprivations at the hands of liberals who demand conformity of thought, adherence to orthodoxy and unquestioning loyalty to the cause.
It might be tempting, under these circumstances, to dismiss Sessions’s remarks as mere hypocrisy. But they were far, far worse than that. They were deliberately aimed at misleading the public about whose rights are under more serious attack — and who is doing the attacking. His remarks were clearly calculated to portray certain people (conservatives) as victims of suppression of free speech, and certain people (liberals) as the perpetrators of that suppression. Given his position as the top law enforcement official in the nation, this is alarming, as Sessions is prejudging the motivations and rights of certain categories of people.
Sessions’s manipulations did not end there. He also had the audacity to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. “Indeed, it was the power of Dr. King’s words that crushed segregation and overcame the violence of the segregationists,” he said. “At so many times in our history as a people, it was speech — and still more speech — that led Americans to a more just, more perfect union.”
What makes this particularly galling is that speech protesting the injustice of racism is at the very core of the protests by the football players, which Trump has been attacking. They are protesting systemic racism, racist police brutality, racist sentencing laws and the incarceration state.
This, of course, is a viewpoint Sessions has spent his career opposing. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that King’s own widow, Coretta Scott King, opposed Sessions’s 1986 nomination to the federal bench because it would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.” Sessions was not confirmed to the federal bench because of, among other things, his history of racist remarks, and, as a prosecutor, his pursuit of charges of voter fraud against voting rights activists.
Today Sessions exhibited no greater understanding of the professional athlete protests than he did of King’s legacy. After his speech, Sessions was asked about the NFL controversy. “Well, the president has free speech rights, too,” Sessions said, making clear that he would not dare cross the president. “I agree there’s a big mistake to protest in that fashion, because it weakens the commitment we have that has provided us this freedom,” he added.
In other words, in Sessions’s telling, the “big mistake” the players make is not conforming to the president’s view of what is patriotic, even though Sessions had only moments earlier decried universities as an “echo chamber” of “homogeneous thought.”
In his speech, Sessions also laid out a clear strategy for his Justice Department. He announced that DOJ will begin intervening in campus free speech disputes, saying that it would soon be filing a “statement of interest” in a case claiming suppression of free speech rights of Christian students at a public university. In other words, Tuesday’s speech was more than an exercise in appalling cynicism. It also signals that his Justice Department will now be carrying out the political agenda it embodied as the litigation strategy of the United States government.