More than 100 Georgetown Law students were barred from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ free speech lecture at the school on Tuesday, even though they had been told they could attend and there were empty seats in the auditorium, a protest organizer said.
Disinvited students said they believe they were prevented from seeing Sessions speak because organizers wanted to avoid creating a “hostile environment.”
“It’s incredibly ironic that the attorney general wants to come here to talk about free speech, but is excluding dissenting voices and potentially dissenting questions from his speech,” second-year student Lauren Phillips told NPR.
Phillips was an organizer of a protest outside Georgetown Law’s Center for the Constitution, where Sessions spoke on Tuesday. Dozens of protesters, including faculty members and students, took a knee before Sessions’ speech began — a nod to the silent protests that have been sweeping the NFL. The demonstrators later linked arms and held up posters with slogans like “Defend Free Speech, Denounce Sessions,” and “Sessions Is Afraid Of Questions.”
Phillips told The Washington Post that about 130 students had gone through official channels to secure seats for the event, but at the last minute were told that they were not allowed to attend. She told the paper that she believes organizers withdrew the invitation to “ensure a sympathetic audience” for Sessions.
Phillips also criticized school officials for designating a very small “free speech zone” on campus for protesters.
A spokesperson for Georgetown Law told the Post that special “protest areas” had indeed been demarcated. The spokesperson added that “free speech is protected for students” across the entire campus, and that the zones had been created only for “safety and security” reasons.
Several faculty members had previously condemned Sessions’ planned visit to the school. In an open letter published Monday, dozens of professors excoriated the event as “hypocritical” and “troubling.”
“We, the undersigned, condemn the hypocrisy of Attorney General Sessions speaking about free speech,” read the letter. “Sessions is a key cabinet member in an administration headed by a President who spent last weekend denouncing athletes engaging in free expression and calling for them to be fired.”
“This kind of government chilling of speech is precisely what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is meant to prevent,” the letter continued. “A man who fails to recognize paradigmatic violations of the First Amendment is a poor choice to speak about free speech on campuses.”
Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown Law professor who signed the letter, told HuffPost this week that she had “never seen a faculty so quickly and so numerously object to any speaker coming to campus, let alone an attorney general of the United States of America.”
“It is insulting to the community, to the idea of freedom of expression, and therefore to the very point of a law school, which is supposed to be communicating uncontested legal values,” Feldman said.
Sessions, during his speech on Tuesday, strongly defended the values of free speech, declaring that “in this great land, the government does not tell you what to think or what to say.” He went on to lambast athletes who have chosen to take a knee during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice, and defended President Donald Trump’s calls that such athletes be fired.
“The president has free speech rights too,” Sessions said.
Beyond the content of Sessions’ speech, some Georgetown students and faculty members said that were many “hypocrisies” surrounding the event.
For one thing, they said, access to the talk was very limited.
Feldman said the event was only open to students of Randy Barnett, director of the Center for the Constitution, which had invited Sessions to speak, and law school student fellows and faculty members affiliated with the center who had RSVP’d in advance.
“It is ... jarring that an event at which the attorney general is supposed to be speaking about free speech has limited access,” Feldman said, adding that it was “unusual” to restrict students and staff from a campus event involving a “high-profile speaker addressing a topic of general interest.”
Nick Visser contributed reporting.