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tv   Attorney General Freedom of Thought and Speech Under Attack on College...  CSPAN  September 30, 2017 2:13pm-2:50pm EDT

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>> we are at the end of the march year. -- here. >> we have been watching the march for racial justice as it continues its way down pennsylvania avenue, carrying signs and banners. end at the national rally for speakers programs, scheduled to start at 3:15 p.m.. we will have those for you live. next on c-span, attorney general to studentss spoke on georgetown university law center on whether's free speech
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-- whether free speech was under attack. this is just over an hour. [applause] mr. sessions: thank you very much, professor. it is a great honor to be in georgetown law and the georgetown center for the constitution, where the exchange of ideas is indeed welcomed and encouraged. and thank you for hosting me with these students today. and i thank you students for allowing me to be a part of this national conversation with you. as you embark on another school year, you and hundreds of your peers across the campus we hope will continue the intellectual journey that is higher education. i loved my education experience so much and i suspect you do , too.
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you will discover new areas of knowledge, you will engage in debate, great and small and many of the views you have will be challenged and some of your views may even change. you will if your institutions follow our nation's historic and cultural education traditions, pursue truth while growing in mind and spirit. in short, we hope you'll take part in the right of every american -- free, robust, sometimes contentious exchange of ideas. as you exercise these rights, realize how precious, how rare, and how fragile they are. in most societies throughout history and in so many i have had an opportunity to visit as a member of the armed services committee to some of the most difficult places on the globe, such rights do not exist in these places, openly criticizing the government or expressing unorthodox opinions could land you in jail or worse.
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so let me tell you about one example that occurred one autumn when a few idealistic university students came together as a group to advocate for a felt political need. wanting to recruit others to their cause, they staked out some ground on a campus walkway popular with students and approached them as they passed. they said things like, do you like freedom? do you like liberty? and then they offered these passerbys a document that they revered and believed represented these ideals. the united states constitution. these young proselytizers for liberty did not block the walk disruptnot surrounding activities did not , use intimidation or violence to further their cause. nevertheless a government official labeled this behavior provocative and in violation of government policy and when the
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young people bravely refused to stop, citing their right to free speech, the local official had been arrested, handcuffed and , jailed. this troubling ince definite -- incident could have occurred on under any number of tyrannies where the bedrock american ideals of freedom, thought, and speech have no foothold whatsoever but this incident , happened right here in the united states. just last year at a public , college in battle creek, michigan. a state official actually had students jailed for handing out copies of the united states constitution. freedom of thought and speech on american campus are under attack. 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 homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile
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egos. in 2017, the foundation for individual rights in education surveyed 450 colleges and universities across the country and found that 40% maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutional protected speech. of the public colleges surveyed , which are bound by the first amendment, fully one third had written policies banning disfavored speech. for example, at boise state university in idaho, the student code of conduct prohibits, quote, "conduct that a reasonable person would find offensive," close quote. at clemson university, the student code of conduct bans any verbal or physical act that creates a "an offensive and
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-- an offensive educational work or living environment." but who decides what is offensive and what is acceptable? the university is about the search for truth. not the imposition of truth by a government censor. speech and civility codes often violate what the late justice antonin scalia are rightly called, quote, "the first axiom of the first amendment which is that, quote, as a general rule, the state has no power to ban speech on the basis of content." in this great land, the government does not tell you what to think or what to say. in addition to written speech codes, many colleges now deigned to tolerate free speech only in certain geographically limited free speech zones. for example, a student recently filed suit against pierce
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college in california, public school, alleging that it prohibited him from distributing spanish language copies of the united states constitution outside the school's free speech zone. the size of the free speech zone? 616 square feet. barely the size of two dorm rooms. these cramped zones are eerily familiar to what the supreme court warned against in the seminal 1969 case of tinker versus des moines, a case about student speech. it said " freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right could be exercised only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven." college administrators have also
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silenced speech by permitting the hecklers' veto to control who gets to speak and what messages are conveyed. in these instances, administrators discourage or prohibit speech if there's even a threat that it will be met by protests. in other words, the school favors the hecklers' disruptive tactics over the speaker's first amendment rights. these administrators seem to forget that as the supreme court put it in watson vs. city of memphis more than 50 years ago, "constitutional rights may not be denied simply because of hostility to the assertion of their exercise." this permissible attitude toward the hecklers' veto spawned a cottage industry of protesters who have learned that school administrators often will
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capitulate to their demands. protesters are now routinely shutting down speeches and debates across the country in an effort to silence voices that insufficiently conform to their views. a frightening example occurred at middlebury college. student protesters violently shut down a debate between an invited speaker and one of the school's own professors. as soon as the event began, the protesters shouted for 20 minutes, preventing the debate from occurring. when the debaters then attempted to move to a private broadcasting location, the protesters -- many wearing masks, a common tactic used by the detestable ku klux klan, -- pulled fire alarms, surrounded the speakers, and began physically assaulting them. in short, students engaged in a violent riot to ensure that neither they nor their fellow
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students would hear speech they may have disagreed with. indeed, the crackdown on speech creeds, races, issues, and religion. at brown university, a speech to promote transgender rights was canceled after students protested because a jewish group co-sponsored the lecture. virginia tech disinvited a n african-american speaker because he had written on race issues, and they were worried about protests disrupting the event. so this is not right. this is not in the great tradition of america. and yet, school administrators have bent to this behavior. the effect is to coddle and encourage it. just other a week ago, after the orwellian-named anti-fascist protesters had successfully shut down numerous campus speaker
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events in recent months with violent riots, berkley was reportedly forced to spend $600,000 and have an overwhelming police presence to simply prove that the mob was not in control of their campus. the home of free speech. in advance, the school offered counseling in advance of this speech. they offered counseling to any student or faculty whose sense of safety or belonging was threatened by a speech from ben shapiro, a 33-year-old harvard-trained lawyer who has frequently been targeted by anti-semites for his jewish who vigorously condemns hate speech from the
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left or the right. well, in the end, mr. shapiro spoke to a packed house and to my knowledge, no one fainted, no one felt unsafe, and no one needed counsel, i hope. yet after this small victory for free speech, a student speaking to a reporter said in reaction, "i don't think berkley should host any controversial speakers on either side." that, perhaps, would be the worst lesson to draw from that episode, i firmly believe. i know that the vast majority of students like you, at the constitution center, need no lecture on the dangers of government-imposed groupthink. but we have seen a rash of incidents, often perpetrated by small groups of those students and professors unable or unwilling to defend their own beliefs in the public forum. unfortunately, these trends have been tolerated by administrators and shrugged off by other students.
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so let us directly address the question, why should we worry about free speech that may be in retreat on our universities? of course, for publicly run institutions, the easy answer is that upholding free speech rights is not an option. but an unshakeable requirement of the first amendment. as justice robert jackson once explained, "if there is a fixed our constellation, in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, higher or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion." but even setting aside the law,
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the more fundamental issue is that the university is supposed to be a place where we train virtuous students. it's where the next generation of americans are equipped to contribute to and live in a diverse and free society filled with many, often contrary, voices. our legal heritage, upon which the founders crafted the bill of rights, taught that reason and knowledge produced the closest approximation of truth. and from truth may hopefully often, arises justice. but reason requires discourse and frequently arguments, and that is why the free speech guarantee is found not just in the first amendment but it permeates our institutions, our traditions, and our constitution in this free, unique, exceptional land. a jury trial.
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the right to cross-examine witnesses. the speech and debate clause. the very art and practice of lawyering. all of these are rooted in the idea that speech, reason, and confrontation are the very bedrock of a good society. in fact, these practices are designed to ascertain what is the truth. and from that truth, good policy and actions can be founded. federalists against the anti-federalists. abraham lincoln against stephen douglas. dr. martin luther king against george wallace. indeed, it was the power of dr. king's words, his speech, that crushed segregation and overcame the violence of the segregationists. he was unrelenting in making a clear, moral argument that in the end could not be denied.
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words over violence. so many times in our history as a people, it was indeed speech and still more speech that led americans to a more just and perfect union. the right to freely examine the moral and immoral, the prudent and the foolish, the practical and the inefficient, and the right to argue for their merits or demerits, remain indispensable for a healthy republic. it has been known since the beginning of our nation. james madison knew this when, as part of his protest against the alien and sedition acts, the speech codes of his day, he said that the freedom of speech is "the only effectual guardian of every other right." and in a quote that i'm reminded of daily in this job, thomas jefferson knew this when he said
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in words now chiseled in his monuments -- "i swear upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against any form of tyranny over the mind of man." no little matter there. perhaps --'ll be -- a professor, university president, the attorney general of the united states, maybe president of the united states, and you will have your own issues to grapple with. there are those who will say certain speech is undeserving of
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rejection. they will point to the very speech and believe that we abhor as americans. but the right to free speech does not justas justice brandeiy stated in 1927 in concurrence whitney vs. california, "yet if there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." and let me be clear. protecting free speech does not mean condoning violence like we saw recently in charlottesville. indeed, i call upon universities and all americans to stand up against those who would silence free expression by violence or other means.
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but a mature society can tell the difference between violence and unpopular speech and a truly free society stands up, speaks up for cherished rights precisely when it is most difficult to do so. as justice holmes once wrote, " "if there is any principal of the constitution that more imperatively calls for the attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought." not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate. for the thought that we hate. and we must do so on our campuses, university officials and faculty must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally. that means presidents, regents, trustees, alumni as well. a national recommitment to free
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speech on campus is long overdue and action to ensure first amendment rights are overdue. starting today, the department of justice will do its part in this work. we will enforce federal law. defend free speech. and protect students' free expression from whatever end of the spectrum it may come. to that end, we are filing a statement of interest in a campus free speech case this week and we will be filing more, i'm sure, in the weeks to come. this month we marked the 230th , anniversary of our constitution. what a remarkable document indeed. it is the longest existing constitution in the world. and it is an extraordinary thing. this month, we also mark the 54th anniversary of the 16th street baptist church bombing in birmingham. four little girls died that day
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as they changed into their choir robes because the klan wanted to silence their voices for civil rights. but their choices were not -- voices were not silenced. dr. martin luther king would call them the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and dignity. i urge you, really, urge you, to go back and read that eulogy an d consider what it had to say to each of us today. this is the true legacy and power of free speech that has been handed down to you. and you can be sure it made people uncomfortable when martin luther king spoke about segregation, particularly in the south. this is the heritage that you have been given and that you must protect. so i'm here today to ask you to be involved, to make your voices
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heard, to defend the rights of others to do the same. for the last 241 years, we have staked a country on the principle that robust and even contentious debate is how we discover truth and resolve the nation's most intractable problem. your generation will decide if this experiment in freedom will continue, nothing less than the future of the republic depends on it. thank you all, it's great to be with you. [applause] >> thank you, mr. attorney general, for those remarks. as you know, this talk has attracted considerable interest
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from the student body as well as my colleagues. we have some questions that have been submitted by students in attendance today. many of these questions are actually similar. they ask about the same question. i have to say the most popular questioned concerned -- you may be surprised to hear this -- the nfl. so here is one iteration of this question for your comment. can you comment on the recent debate over nfl player protests? as attorney general does it , concern you that these players are being condemned by many including the president, for , exercising their constitutional right to free speech and protest? mr. sessions: well, the president has free speech rights, too. he sends soldiers out every day to defend this country under the flag of the united states, under the national anthem and the unity that those symbols call on us to adhere to. so i agree that it's a big
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mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the , commitment we have to this nation that has provided us this freedom. i would note, of course, that the players aren't subject to any prosecution, but if they take a provocative act they can expect to be condemned and the president has the right to condemn them and i would condemn their actions, not them as human beings, but i don't think that was a good -- in many ways these , players with all the assets that they have, can express their political views other than in effect denigrating the symbols of our nation, a nation that's provided our freedom to speak and act. >> as a matter of fact, the next student question is a followup question on what you just said. so let me read it. if the methods citizens have thus far employed to register
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objection to policies, practices, and situations are unsuitable and divisive in the administration's eyes, what can citizens do to properly register their opinions? mr. sessions: people have a right to register their opinions, to protest, criticize, in any number of ways. i guess it's up to the owners and the people who create these games and pay for the ball fields to decide what you can do on a ball field. but freedom of every individual player is paramount under the constitution. it's protected. and we have to protect it. i think that it's not a contradiction there. >> how much does context matter here? are those whose viewpoint in the minority in a particular community, such as a college campus in need of any special , protection? will that be a factor that the d.o.j. will take into account when setting its policies? who is in the majority and who is in the minority in the given,
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specific community? mr. sessions: well, all of us need to understand that people who have minority views should be respected. and should be listened to them. and -- but i don't think we really need to apply any special rights to a minority group. i think there's a danger, a greater danger that a minority group might be denied the right to speak, to express their views, somehow be suppressed. that should always be guarded against. but fundamentally, the constitution protecting everybody's speech. the majority and the minority. and that's, i think, the great tradition we have in this country. and i really we should defend it -- think we should defend it and i have felt, we talk about it a lot with my staff, young people right out of college, super talented young people, and
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there is unease, that things are going on on campuses that make them very uncomfortable. that they feel not free or affirmed when they express views that might be contrary to the majority. but i don't think the constitution says you would treat one group different from another. i think fundamentally, everyone has the basic rate to express -- right to express themselves. >> we got a speech-related question from students. and is and that is, it says this. as an advocate of free speech, how do you feel about the use of senate rule 19 to limit speech on the senate floor during confirmation hearings as was , done to senator warren when she was criticizing your nomination to be attorney general? mr. sessions: well, she certainly had the right to criticize my nomination and i think she really had the right to read the letter, but she was blocked, at least temporarily blocked from reading.
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the senate rule 19 says you you should not -- it's back to 1902 after a fistfight broke out on the floor of the senate -- it says you shouldn't personally disparage another senator. i was both a senator and a nominee. so it was a little different. i was not on the floor, i do not know anything about it. i would just say that i think in general, the senate is one of the most open debating forums in the history of the world. robert byrd said there are two great senates and one of the them is the u.s. senate. and people feel that. and we should be very cautious before we constrict any member of the senate from speaking on issues in a way they choose. >> you grew up in alabama, and you were a college student. so did you have any experience expressing minority opinions in your college? what college was this again? mr. sessions: huntington college.
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great place. >> did you have any experience being the minority viewpoint in your college campus? mr. sessions: well, yeah. huntington is a little methodist, liberal arts college. so we -- there were no republicans about then. somehow, somebody, an english teacher had prevailed on me to start reading the "national review" and that had become what -- become somewhat conservative in my thinking. but the establishment was the wallace machine, it dominated alabama. so we started our little effort, first time they'd ever had a republican club on huntington college's campus, my wife was a member, too. and so we battled, we campaigned, lost almost every time we campaigned, but -- and even law school, there wasn't
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many republicans in the law school bunch, you can be sure. but times changed. it's amazing. now virtually every statewide elected official in alabama is republican. but -- i have a sense i have a , feel for what it's like to stick in there for what you believe. and not kowtow to somebody who has got a different view, a majority view and they don't , want to hear your view. people have a right to not have their mind dominated by -- certainly not by the government -- and nobody else, really. you're required, all of us are, to use our best judgment, to seek truth and try to do the right thing and full debate, it normally clears the air, helps you make better decisions. that certainly was the idea of the founders. i believe it's still valid today. >> could you tell us more about this initiative that the d.o.j.
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is taking that you mentioned in your speech, you're filing a statement of interest in a case? what's this case? mr. sessions: it's a case about a christian group that was attempting to express themselves in a way that any group promoting any agenda, political or religious, we believe, should have been allowed to do. and were improperly, we think, constricted in that right. constitution provides free speech, a right to assembly right to petition. , a it also provides the right to free expression of religion. maybe they even have a little bit additional right there that is important. so we think that this case came up promptly because it's got a deadline. the deadline for us to file. we can file a statement of interest without being a party
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in the case. it's one of the unusual rights that the department of justice has. federal government has. to file a statement, a brief, without being a party in a case, and we think appropriate to kind -- we think it is appropriate to kind of affirm what the proper parameters of free speech are at this college in georgia. >> we know you have to be at another engagement and we have let you go, but maybe the last question can be about this particular event. as you know, there are many protesters, both in front of this building and in the hallway outside this hall, including members of our faculty, who are protesting. this event is being simulcast in a classroom that's outside this auditorium so that everybody else can come, who couldn't come in here, could hear it there. and i'm wondering if you have any message, since the words are
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going to convey outside this room, any message to the folks outside this room. any message to the folks who are protesting or the professors or those who could not join us here in the auditorium today? mr. sessions: well, first i'd like to thank you for the opportunity to be with you. i know this is a very talented group indeed, or you wouldn't be in this law school. we respect your views, no matter what they are. we will defend your views. and the right to express them in appropriate and effective ways. certainly the great tradition that this country has founded on. we would call on our universities and administrators and officials to intellectually push back against some of the trends that we're seeing today. by which some people seem to think they have a right to block
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somebody else's beliefs and the expression of those beliefs. i think it's a fundamental thing. and i think if we teach that, if we teach the very fundamental necessity of that, then fewer people will feel they can have legitimacy by blocking someone else's speech. particularly on the college campus, my heavens sake, college campuses, where it should be the most. you're forming your ideas. you're thinking things through. it was such a fabulous time for me and i changed in a lot of different ways. over that period of time. and i'm sure you will. so we celebrate the diversity of opinion. we celebrate your freedom to ask questions, to push back, to challenge what may be orthodoxy in many different areas. that's part of america's heritage. and i got to tell you, the american heritage of law and
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public policy and the way we approach it is very unique. i've traveled the globe, i've been in afghanistan. we helped them write a constitution. but professor barnett, they had no heritage on it. it was written up here but it didn't -- their lives didn't impact that. so we've been blessed with a heritage that causes us to understand in a more deep way than most people in the world can why freedom is important, why debate is important, why free speech is important. so i would urge you to understand and think about the very uniqueness of this right that we have. to defend it steadfastly against anyone that would dominate somebody in their thoughts and speech, and i believe we'll be a better and more healthy republic afterwards. so it's an honor to be with you.
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thank you. >> thank you, mr. attorney general. [applause] >> i really appreciate your comments. that was a great speech. really amazing. thank you so much. [applause] mr. sessions: thank you all. ♪ >> c-span's washington journal, live every day with news and policy issues that impact you. coming up on sunday morning, a other and with nationally syndicated columnist cal thomas about president trump's his -- agenda. as david zeron talks about president trump's response to nfl players kneeling during the national anthem, and the impact of president trump of the america first foreign policy doctrine. be sure to watch washington journal, live at 7:00 eastern on sunday morning. join the discussion.

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