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Georgetown students, faculty take a knee to protest Sessions’ hypocrisy on free speech

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Georgetown Law students and faculty gathered on the campus Tuesday to protest a speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in which he blasted college campuses that he said have allowed political correctness to erode free speech. The school did not allow many of the students and faculty at Tuesday’s protest to attend the invite-only speech.

“The concept of free speech is to invite both people who dissent and people who disagree,” Imani Waweru, a third-year law student and attorney general of Georgetown’s Black Law Students Association, told ThinkProgress. “The obvious message here is that those who dissent are not invited.”

Georgetown’s Center for the Constitution, led by conservative professor Randy Barnett, organized Sessions’ speech. Students and faculty said they took issue with the fact that they had just one day’s notice that the controversial attorney general would speak. The issue of free speech rose to the top of the national conversation over the weekend, when President Donald Trump lit into NFL players who silently protest police brutality by taking a knee during pre-game performances of the national anthem.

Several students said they got an email inviting them to request a ticket to the speech and were later told they received a spot, only to be disinvited.

“Regrettably, the email you subsequently received indicating you have a seat for the event was in error,” said the disinvite email. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer you a seat for the event.”

Students and faculty stand on the steps outside Sessions’ speech. CREDIT: Joshua Eaton

Heidi Li Feldman, a professor of law at Georgetown who helped organize the faculty protest, said she had concerns with both the substance of Sessions’ speech and with how the event was coordinated. Typically, all students and faculty would be invited to see high-profile speakers on campus, not just those enrolled in a specific class or affiliated with a specific campus group. 

Feldman helped pen a public letter Monday night, signed by roughly 40 faculty members who said they “condemn the hypocrisy” of Sessions, an attorney general with a “troubling” record on freedom of expression and other civil liberties, speaking about free speech.

“This isn’t mindless, ‘let’s get rid of speakers we don’t like behavior,’” Feldman told ThinkProgress, explaining how Sessions’ views run counter to what the university’s values. “It’s insulting to the American public and American lawyers to hold yourself out as an authority on freedom of expression when you have done nothing to suggest that the President of the United States chilling free speech is problematic.”

More than 100 students and faculty, many wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, gathered on the steps of McDonough Hall, where Sessions spoke, to protest the attorney general. At one point, many dropped down on one knee. Some carried signs that pointed out Trump and Sessions’ apparent hypocrisy: “Snowflake Sessions Chills Speech,” “Sessions = Suppression,” and “We Were Uninvited.”

Others took aim at the administration’s efforts to repeal the Obama-era DACA program for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, or Trump and Sessions’ repeated claim that Black Lives Matter movement has lead to attacks on police.

Alicia Plerhoples, a professor of law at Georgetown and an adviser to the school’s chapter of the American Constitution Society, singled out the administration’s response to highly publicized incidents of police killing unarmed black people.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tried to really dismantle what President Obama has put in place over the last eight years in terms of review, Department of Justice review, of local police departments,” she told ThinkProgress

At the bottom of the steps, students and faculty stepped up to a megaphone one-by-one with questions they would have asked Sessions, they said, had they been allowed in to hear him speak.

“We have questions for Jeff Sessions,” students and faculty changed in unison toward the end of the rally.

Inside the building, Sessions spoke for less than an hour, condemning the NFL players protesting during the national anthem and claiming he has no issue with Trump’s comments because “the president has free speech rights too.”

Feldman said she worries that comments like that will give the public the impression that the government can and will chill citizens’ speech.

“There’s a hostility to the very values that make the right to free expression valuable and important,” she said. “It’s not just hypocritical. It’s dangerous.”

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