Georgetown Law students and faculty protest speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions

 In U.S.
Georgetown University students gathered on the steps of McDonough Hall to protest the Sept. 26 speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (A.J. Carvalho)

Dozens of Georgetown University students gathered Tuesday on the steps of McDonough Hall to protest a speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The students were joined by faculty members who initially took a knee and later linked arms.

They took turns speaking into a bullhorn, decrying Sessions, the process the university used to bring him to campus and posing questions they would have asked the attorney general had they been allowed into the event.

“We, the disinvited, find it extraordinarily hypocritical that AG Sessions would lecture future attorneys about free speech on campus while excluding the wider student body,” third-year law student Ambur Smith said into the bullhorn.

Some of the roughly 100 protesters who gathered outside Georgetown’s law school wore duct tape over their mouths. They held signs that proclaimed, “DEPORT HATE,” FREE SPEECH IS NOT HATE SPEECH,” and “Sessions is afraid of questions.”

Georgetown law professor Heidi Li Feldman was one of about 40 faculty and staff members who joined students on the steps of McDonough Hall.

“A law school is a place for people to learn about the deepest principles that undergird our democratic republic. Those principles are trampled upon by Attorney General sessions, in particular, and Donald Trump,” she said. “You cannot invite people who so thoroughly threaten the basic premises of American law to a campus and not speak up if your mission in life is to educate people about the American legal system.”

Third-year law student Imani Waweru cited President Trump’s criticism of NFL players and other actions by the White House in asserting that the administration  “has fallen short in a lot of areas about understanding what free speech entails.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Sept. 26 at Georgetown University Law Center that NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem are making “a big mistake.” (The Washington Post)

“We just firmly believe that this administration does not demonstrate that they have a full understanding of free speech,” Waweru said.

By 12:20 p.m., the crowd of demonstrators had thinned to about half its earlier size.

Inside the hall where Sessions spoke, a line of students sitting near the back stood up and placed black tape over their mouths as the attorney general concluded his address.

Greyson Wallis, a Georgetown law student from Bradenton, Fla., was among those who stood up after Sessions delivered his remarks. She said that although Sessions is a controversial figure, that wasn’t the main reason for the protest. Wallis, 24, said Georgetown students signed up for the event, but were then told via email their invitations had been rescinded.

“It seemed like they were rescinding those invites because they didn’t want any sort of hostile environment, and I can understand not wanting to have a violent environment, but that’s not at all what we were trying to do,” Wallis said. “We’re law students. We all just wanted to hear what he had to say and let him know where we differ from his opinions.”

Wallis, who wore a black toque that read “nasty woman,” said she felt Sessions gave a speech to an “echo chamber,” a group of people who agree with his policies and stances.

“This was at no point at risk of turning into Berkeley in any manner,” she said, referring to violent protests earlier this year in the California city. “But people wanted to be here and hear what he had to say. Unfortunately, his message of opening yourself up to the other side isn’t going to reach the people that he wants it to reach. Because they weren’t allowed to be in here today.”

The attorney general’s address on free speech at the Georgetown’s Law Center sparked a variety of responses in advance from students and faculty members.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Sept. 26 at Georgetown University Law Center that “protecting free speech does not mean condoning violence like we saw recently in Charlottesville.” (The Washington Post)

Some welcomed the opportunity to hear from the top law-enforcement officer and top lawyer in the U.S. government. But others objected to the late notice and limited audience for such a high-profile speaker, and argued that was antithetical to the idea of free speech and an open exchange of ideas.

Sessions, who has sparked controversy over immigration, race and other issues, planned to talk about free speech on college campuses. It’s a fraught topic nationally, with many conservatives saying that only liberal viewpoints are welcome on many college campuses, stifling free exchange and overly sensitive students finding alternative viewpoints too offensive to hear.

On Monday, some students said they got messages informing them they would not be allowed to attend the event, as they were not included on the invitation list drawn up by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution at Georgetown Law, which is hosting Sessions.

More than 130 students who had followed official channels to register for a seat in the auditorium were told they could attend, Lauren Phillips, a student at the school, wrote in an email Monday night. But the students were later suddenly uninvited because they were not part of a group that, Phillips believes, would ensure a sympathetic audience.

She said those students “find it extraordinarily hypocritical that AG Sessions would lecture future attorneys about the importance of free speech on campus while actively excluding the wider student body,” and that school officials had told students they could voice their objections only within a designated “free speech zone” which she said was a tiny, isolated corner of the campus. “We hope in the future that the University will truly uphold the principles of free speech, including the right to dissent.”

Randy Barnett, director of the Center for the Constitution, which offers programs “placing special emphasis on how best to remain faithful to the Constitution’s text,” did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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