Washington, DC - Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks to Turning Point USA's High School Leadership Summit:
Thank you, Charlie for that generous introduction and thank you for your strong advocacy for our First Amendment rights at more than 1,100 schools across America.
I also want to thank Candace Owens. I know a lot of people love the way Candace Owens thinks.
I’m told that later today you’ll hear from Guy Benson, Jason Miller, and my friend and former colleague Senator Purdue. This is a fabulous opportunity.
I’m pleased to see that my home state of Alabama is well-represented here today. I want to give a warm welcome to Michael Byars of Moody High School, Grant Hershbine of Buckhorn High School, Aurelia Martinez of James Clemens High School, and Jonathan Stuckey of Providence Christian School in Dothan.
It is inspiring to me to see so many young people who are excited about issues of law and politics.
I was about your age when I became a conservative and when I started to get involved in politics. One of my high school teachers, Mr. Dickey, gave me a copy of National Review. I couldn’t put it down. I became a supporter of Barry Goldwater.
When I went off to college, I led the Young Republicans Club. My future wife Mary was a member of the club.
At that time, there weren’t many Republicans in the South—especially not in Alabama. From 1874 to 1987—for 113 years—the Governor of Alabama was a Democrat. From 1879 to 1981, both of our Senators were Democrats. Only two Republicans were elected to the Senate in 140 years. In 1994 I became the first Republican since reconstruction—in 120 years—elected Attorney General of Alabama.
You get the picture: we were outnumbered. The odds were stacked against us. But we worked hard and I was elected class president.
We campaigned against the governor, Democrat George Wallace and then his wife Lurleen, who were leaders of the segregationist movement.
Sometimes we lost—mostly we lost –but we kept fighting. We took pride in that and we laid the groundwork for later successes.
And so I want to commend each one of you for doing that—for getting involved in the political process and for caring about the national interest.
Maybe some of your classmates are more focused on pop culture or the latest fad. But you’re focused on the well-being of your country. That is terrific.
We should encourage that. But unfortunately, there are elements in our society today who want to stop you and silence you. Not with facts or better arguments. They just want to stop you from speaking out at all.
They want you to feel outnumbered, too. They want you to get discouraged. They want you to quit. They want you to abandon your values.
Whether you realize it or not, freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack.
Of all places, the college campus should be where debate and discussion should be appreciated and honored. But nowhere has there been more arbitrary and capricious restrictions on free speech than in supposedly educational institutions.
Many political activists try to intimidate people into silence.
Back in October, a Black Lives Matter group at William and Mary shut down an ACLU event on the First Amendment. They chanted “liberalism is white supremacy” and “ACLU—you protect Hitler too.”
The ACLU doesn’t mind calling other people names—but I bet they didn’t like that.
At Middlebury College, student protestors violently shut down a debate between an invited speaker and one of the school’s own professors. As soon as the event began, the protestors shouted for 20 minutes, preventing the debate from occurring.
People in masks pulled fire alarms, surrounded the speakers, and began physically assaulting them. And although the protesters were a group of leftists, it was the liberal professor who ended up in the hospital. She said she “feared for [her] life.”
It should be clear that the First Amendment is not a partisan issue. Constitutional rights are for all Americans—not just those in one party or one faction.
Indeed, the crackdown on speech crosses creeds, races, issues, and religions. At Brown University, a speech to promote transgender rights was cancelled after students protested because a Jewish group cosponsored the lecture. Virginia Tech disinvited a conservative African American speaker because he had written on race issues and they worried about protests disrupting the event.
This is not in the great tradition of America. These trends are disturbing.
Far too many schools are complicit in this effort to prevent genuine debate and engagement with ideas.
Through “trigger warnings” about “microaggressions,” cry closets, “safe spaces,” optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.
After the 2016 election, for example, they held a “cry-in” at Cornell, they had therapy dogs on campus at the University of Kansas, and Play-dough and coloring books at the University of Michigan. Students at Tufts were encouraged to “draw about their feelings.”
Rather than molding a generation of mature and well-informed adults, some schools are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.
That is a disservice to their students and a disservice to this nation.
Speech codes protecting students from difficult or challenging ideas is a key aspect of this problem.
Last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed 450 colleges and universities across the country and found that 40 percent maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutionally protected speech. Of the public colleges surveyed—which are legally bound by the First Amendment—fully one-third had written policies banning disfavored speech.
Freedom of speech is a decisive issue. This is important—and not just for students. It is important for our society as a whole.
We cannot have free and deliberative government without freedom of thought. And we cannot have freedom of thought without freedom of speech.
The Father of our Constitution, James Madison, put it this way: freedom of speech is “the only effectual guardian of every other right.” If we cannot speak freely, then we cannot exercise our other rights, either.
If you can control, dominate, the way people talk—then you can control the way they think.
And so it is no surprise that some people want to control the way we talk.
Our Founders had a deep understanding of human nature and they foresaw that this would be a problem. They knew that those with power would look for ways to contain criticism so they can continue in their places of power without the distraction of other opinions.
That is why they took care to enshrine the robust protections of the First Amendment in our Constitution.
Freedom of speech is precious and rare in this world. It is one of the reasons that America is exceptional. But it is also fragile.
I believe that we have a responsibility to honor the Constitution—and to preserve this heritage of freedom of speech for your generation.
Under President Trump’s strong leadership, this Department of Justice is doing its part to protect our Republic by protecting this right.
We are going to court to protect students across America—and we are winning.
The University of California Berkeley allegedly applied a stricter set of rules for inviting public speakers to conservative student organizations than for other campus groups. Under the school’s policy, administrators appeared to have almost complete discretion over the times, places, and conditions of hosting campus guest speakers. That discretion allowed them to apply different rules to different people in an arbitrary and capricious way.
A group of students argue that that’s precisely what administrators did. They allege that by placing unrealistically burdensome requirements on conservative speakers—but not on other speakers—the school effectively discriminated against them and made it impossible for them to speak. But all must have the chance to speak.
Last March a student filed suit against Los Angeles Pierce College, alleging that it prohibited him from distributing copies of the Constitution outside of the designated “free speech zone.”
How big was this free speech zone? 616 square feet—barely the size of a couple of college dorm rooms. Outside of that space, students did not have freedom of speech.
The student sued and we stepped in on his behalf in the case.
Georgia Gwinnett College allegedly limited free speech to just 0.0015 percent of campus—and even there students couldn’t speak freely. Students had to get permission from campus officials in advance; they could only use the free speech zone at a specified date and time, and they could not say things that might “disturb the…comfort of person(s).”
Under a system like that, anybody can stop anybody else from speaking their mind merely by acting offended. It doesn’t matter how reasonable, how peaceable, or how true their speech may be—if somebody doesn’t like it, then it’s forbidden.
That is the exact opposite of what the First Amendment demands.
Encouraging people to act offended or to drown out opinions they don’t agree with is bad for the speakers and it’s bad for students.
In these cases, the courts have agreed with us. Attempts to dismiss two of these cases I’ve mentioned have been denied by judges who have adopted the Justice Department’s positions. A decision is still pending in the third.
At the end of May, we filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit against the University of Michigan over its speech codes.
The University forbids “harassment” and “bullying,” and acts motivated by “bias.” They also forbid speech that is interpreted as “demeaning,” “bothersome,” or “hurtful.” But the rules did not give clear definitions about what any of these terms mean. Who gets to define what they mean? The University even told students that “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”
Vague rules like these sound nice—but they are easy to abuse.
These rules are enforced by a group of campus bureaucrats and campus police with the Orwellian name of the Bias Response Team, or BRT. Students can report complaints to the BRT, which then investigates them. In the last school year, the BRT logged more than 150 cases.
We got involved in the lawsuit against the University—and within days, the University changed its policies.
We are going to keep getting involved. We are going to keep holding public institutions accountable.
And I believe that our work is having an impact. That survey I mentioned a moment ago—from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—shows that the percentage of schools with speech codes has declined since last year: from 40 percent to 32 percent. That is a pretty good trend.
We’re going to try to keep bringing that number down.
We are reaching a pivotal and historic moment. After more than two centuries of defending the right to speak freely, a cadre—mostly on the hard left—has openly and systematically justified action to deny Americans the right to speak their mind. We have to stand up to this challenge—and we will do so resolutely.
This is truly a mainstream defense against a radical, ahistorical, and unconstitutional threat that must be defeated. It is time to put a stake in its heart.
But the Department of Justice can’t do it alone. We need your help.
I hope that you’ll continue to get involved. Learn how to defend our legal traditions. Learn about our Constitution. Speak the truth, even where it is unpopular. Lead by example.
While people have a right to speak freely—even inaccurately, impetuously, or without full understanding—a wise and mature citizen should always seek to speak accurately, truthfully, and responsibly.
There is no more important time to be in the trenches than when on defense—when the enemy is charging at you. It is especially important when you’re defending a position that may be unfashionable to maintain the highest degree of accuracy. This is the way you establish credibility and respect. And frankly it is easier to tell the truth. Clear and consistent pounding away at the truth usually produces victory.
So continue to get involved.
You can be certain about this: we are going to keep fighting for you. I believe that we’re going to keep winning. Thank you all and I wish you a great summit.