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Sep 30 2017
by Analia Marzoratti

Why Jeff Sessions's Statement About Free Speech on College Campuses Is A Major Problem

By Analia Marzoratti - Sep 30 2017
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Lately, the issue of what is and is not protected under the First Amendment as free speech has come into the spotlight. With NFL players kneeling at the national anthem and UC Berkeley students protesting and a general clash between ideologies, freedom of speech has increasingly become the debate topic of choice. As the nation continues to be divided politically and socially, the limitations of what constitutes this long-idealized concept of free speech require definition.

On Tuesday morning at Georgetown University, Attorney General Jeff Sessions presented his own perspective on this controversial issue, as a reaction to recent events at Berkeley and as an attempt at damage control in the wake of President Trump’s blatant disregard for actual free speech in criticizing NFL players’s protests. "Freedom of speech and thought on the American campus are under attack," he said in his speech to the university, expressing his disapproval that the college environment in the U.S. has turned from a collective haven for political discussion to what he called “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” He cried "breach of First Amendment" at the growing number of student protests against conservative speakers, and left us with the vague declaration that, starting that day, the Department of Justice under him would “enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.

In giving this speech, Attorney General Sessions just reiterated the points that have been used by everyone wanting an excuse to say something offensive: “It’s a free country, I can say what I want.” Yes, we do in fact live in a free country, that much is correct. But, when someone uses these freedoms to express their hate, and attempt to infringe on the freedom of others, that is when the line should be drawn.

The argument that the students at Berkeley were infringing on First Amendment rights would have been valid if those students were simply preventing a Republican from giving a speech because of the animal on his pin. However, the protestors were acting against an event set up by Milo Yiannopoulos, a known racist, xenophobe, transphobe, misogynist and alt-right supporter. If this event had occurred, it would have not only effectively promoted those values, but also the man that said them. When preventing someone from speaking means preventing them from taking the right to be heard from others, and preventing the promotion of such toxic ideals that would encourage taking these rights, it justifies the actions taken. These actions do not constitute an infringement of the constitution, but, if anything, a defense of its core values of equality.

So, the event Sessions criticizes in his speech was not really a breach in First Amendment rights. Even beyond this, he broadly missed the mark in his creative label of the state of college campuses. Colleges are not all about “trigger-warnings” and “safe spaces” as he so heavily implies. Students don’t spend every waking hour in therapy sessions, labelling every other word as offensive. We use the resources when we need it, and it is something that should be encouraged instead of discouraged, but for most of us it is not a crucial part of our lives. We know how to listen to people talking about something we disagree with, because we’ve grown up dealing with it. The difference now is that we are given an avenue to say something, to act according to our own beliefs, even if it means contradicting those people we once would have had to back down from.

That is the real condition of college campuses, and why politicians like Jeff Sessions look down on us and say that college is changing for the worst. The college environment is still a haven for political discourse, the only change is that now this environment is filled with a majority of liberal students with the drive and ability to act on their beliefs. Calling all these dissenting students weak and sheltered by the system is easier than acknowledging our viewpoints as valid, because that would mean giving some credence to the idea that maybe what he and the rest of the administration are doing may not be what is actually best for the country.

Sessions invalidates and even criminalizes opposing opinions in this speech just like the president has been doing during and before his presidency, frequently firing or advocating the removal of any who remotely oppose him. At this point, denial is the only salvation for an administration balancing on a knife’s edge. And Jeff Sessions is doing his part to keep up the charade and cut down the opposition, be it a football player or a college activist.

Lead Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Analia Marzoratti - University of Texas at Dallas

Analía is a freshman at UT Dallas majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Writing. Follow her on Instagram at @marzana26

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