WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared Tuesday at Georgetown University Law Center that freedom of thought and speech are “under attack” on American campuses.
He said the Department of Justice would file a “statement of interest” in a lawsuit involving a Georgia public college’s use of “free speech zones” and that the department would make more such filings in weeks to come.
Sessions’s new apparent focus on free speech in higher ed reflects an ongoing concern of many Republican officials, who have held multiple congressional hearings to take college leaders to task over high-profile campus incidents. It also comes after a week in which the president drew national attention for his coarse condemnation of National Football League athletes’ public protests against police brutality, which have remained lawful, nonviolent and nondisruptive.
And the speech drew protests from many Georgetown law students and faculty members who oppose the attorney general’s broader agenda as well as his record on civil rights.
“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions declared. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
The attorney general cited a 2017 survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that found 40 percent of responding colleges maintained speech codes “substantially infringing” on constitutionally protected speech. (He didn’t mention that FIRE’s own metrics showed the situation improving at colleges.)
The lawsuit DOJ weighed in on Tuesday involved Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College who, his lawyers have argued, was prevented from efforts to “share his Christian faith” because of campus rules limiting expressive displays to small “free speech zones.” Such zones have been vulnerable legally in cases where they are seen as effectively preventing students’ free speech.
A statement from the Justice Department said the zones at Georgia Gwinnett constitute 0.0015 percent of the campus, and that students must also obtain prior authorization for many activities, even in the zones.
A spokeswoman for the college said Georgia Gwinnett believes the rights set forth in the First Amendment “are of the utmost importance.”…