Sessions joins Trump in criticizing NFL players who kneel during anthem – Politico
Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in for the first time Tuesday on President Donald Trump’s recent condemnation of athletes who stage protests during the national anthem.
Asked at a Georgetown law school event about the president’s condemnation of NFL players, Sessions toed a careful line, joining in the president’s criticism but remaining vague about what consequences the players should face.
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“Well, the president has free speech rights, too,” Sessions said during a question-and-answer session.
“He sends soldiers out every day to defend this country under the flag of the United States, under the national anthem and the unity those symbols call on us to adhere to. I agree that it’s a big mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the commitment we have to this nation,” the attorney general said.
The attorney general said that the protesting players “aren’t subject to any prosecution,” but he never addressed whether he agreed with Trump’s call for the players to be fired.
“There are many ways the players have, assets they have, that they can express their views without in effect denigrating the symbols of our nation,” Sessions added.
Sessions’ remarks came following a speech where he railed against schools that ban all speech deemed offensive or limit protests to designated areas, sometimes dubbed “free speech zones.”
“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Sessions declared in a speech at the Georgetown University Law Center. “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 egos.”
Sessions said speakers on various college campuses have been forced to cancel events by university administrators who said they feared disruptive protests or violence — often by students at those same schools.
“This is not right. This is not in the great tradition of America. And, yet, school administrators bend to this behavior. In effect, they coddle it and encourage it,” the attorney general said.
Reminders of the white-hot controversy over Trump’s NFL comments abounded as Sessions spoke. Just before his speech, about 200 law students and faculty members protested on the steps outside the building, many of them taking a knee in solidarity with the football players Trump criticized.
Many acknowledged the school’s right to invite Sessions to speak but said they found his appearance hypocritical given the president’s ongoing targeting of the NFL players. Some hoisted signs saying “Hate speech is not free speech” and “Why do you silence dissent but applaud free speech.”
Sessions’ plea for greater tolerance of unpopular views on college campuses is likely to further endear him to conservatives who are troubled by growing signs of a liberal orthodoxy at major universities, but the awkwardly-timed speech is yet another sign of the uncomfortable dance between Sessions and Trump.
The president has publicly criticized his attorney general, calling him “weak,” in the wake of his decision to recuse himself from the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Trump revived his criticism of Sessions at a dinner with conservative leaders.
Some Georgetown students complained that the school promised more than 100 of them seats at Sessions’ speech and then abruptly disinvited them.
The organizer of the attorney general’s address, libertarian Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett, said the event was always considered an invitation-only gathering. He invited student fellows of Georgetown law’s Center for the Constitution as well as students in two of his classes. However, an online RSVP link was apparently posted on a Facebook page. Some used that link to register but were later told they could not attend.
Barnett acknowledged that he designated the event as invitation-only in order to reduce the chance of protests that might disrupt Sessions’ speech. Ultimately, about a dozen people wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts–some of them with tape over their mouths–stood silently at the conclusion of the attorney general’s remarks.
Barnett said at least two of the protesters in the hall were his students.
“If anybody wanted to listen to the attorney general, they were provided with access to do that,” Barnett said, citing a live webcast of the event and a feed into a nearby room. “If they wanted to do more than listen and if they actually wanted to disrupt the event, then they were not provided with that opportunity.”
Despite the interest in Sessions’ speech, there were about 50 seats vacant as the attorney general spoke in a basement auditorium. It was unclear why so many seats went unfilled.
Trump touched off a furious debate over free speech and racial issues when he used a political speech in Alabama Friday to urge football teams to fire players who choose to protest by kneeling during the National Anthem.
As the protests spread over the weekend, with the NFL commissioner denouncing Trump’s remarks and even some coaches joining in the on-field demonstrations, Trump kept up his drive, suggesting again hours before Sessions spoke that players who kneel during the anthem should face consequences.
“The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Asked Monday whether Trump has a problem with the First Amendment, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders replied: “Not at all.”
Sessions’ own Justice Department has an uneven record on free-speech issues.
Justice Department lawyers are aggressively defending the free-expression rights of a Colorado baker claiming the right to refuse to bake a custom cake to celebrate a gay couple’s wedding. While government attorneys could have framed the case as an intrusion on the religious practice of the baker, who is a devout Christian, lawyers from the Office of Solicitor General have argued that the state’s enforcement of anti-discrimination laws amounts to an effort to compel speech the baker has no desire to partake in.
In other areas, Justice has taken a more jaundiced view of free expression. Federal prosecutors and the FBI, responding to public calls from Trump, have dramatically ramped up a campaign to ferret out leakers and crack down on unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
Last month, Sessions and other officials publicly touted the new anti-leak drive, announcing that the department is reviewing Justice Department regulations limiting the use of subpoenas and search warrants to track journalists’ phone calls and emails.
Justice officials notably refused to reissue the Obama administration’s pledge that no reporter would be sent to jail for doing his or her job. “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity,” Sessions said of the media.
Protesters at Sessions’ speech also called attention to other Justice Department actions seen as impairing First Amendment rights. Some noted the ongoing federal prosecution of a Sessions’ critic who laughed aloud during his confirmation hearing. Demonstrators also cited prosecutors’ attempts to use a search warrant to seize data from a website used to organize inaugural protests.
The Justice Department is also defending the Trump administration’s anti-illegal-immigration efforts, even when they’re accused of using threats of deportation to silence critics. Justice lawyers fought litigation brought by an Argentinian woman, Daniela Vargas, a former DACA recipient who claims she was arrested and put into deportation proceedings just after she left a Jackson, Miss., news conference against the administration’s immigration policies.
And Justice has sometimes sought to shield from public view events in tension with other messages from the administration. While many LGBT pride events during the Obama administration were open to the press and public, a Justice Department pride celebration in June was officially closed to reporters. One journalist who managed to get into the event was later escorted out.