Protesters stake out Sessions' free speech event

Georgetown Law faculty and students protest Attorney General Jeff Sessions' speech on freedom of speech, Washington, D.C., Sept. 26, 2017

CBS News / Clare Hymes

Last Updated Sep 26, 2017 12:46 PM EDT

Scores of students and faculty showed up Tuesday to protest Attorney General Jeff Sessions' remarks on college campuses, charging that he's being hypocritical and ironic in his address about free speech at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. 

The protesters, representing groups like the National Lawyers Guild, the National Constitution Society, Georgetown Students for Democratic Reform and Georgetown Defenders, claimed the attendees for the speech on free speech were a pre-selected audience. The protesters argued the audience members were preselected based on their school of thought. Some protesters wore Black Lives Matter shirts, amid the public tension between President Trump and the National Football League that has dominated the news cycle the last few days, and took a knee to protest discrimination and promote free speech. 

"We respect your views, no matter what they are," Sessions said in a Q &A sessions after his speech, pressed on his response to the protesters outside the building. "We will defend your views, and the right to express them in appropriate and effective ways."

He added that he calls on university officials to intellectually "push back" against some trends in which some believe they have the right to block others' right to free expression.

Sessions, asked about the NFL controversy, said, "The president has free speech rights too." But he also said players' decision to protest the president is protected.

"The freedom of every individual player is paramount under the Constitution," Sessions said. "It's protected. And we have to protect it."

Despite the protests outside, Sessions' speech itself proceeded without interruption. The attorney general announced the Justice Department will file a statement of interest this week in a campus free speech case, involving Christian group that was "improperly constricted" while expressing their First Amendment rights, Sessions said. 

"The university is about the search for truth," Sessions said Tuesday. "Not the imposition of truth by a government censor."

In his prepared remarks, the attorney general said, "Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack."

"The American university was once the center of academic freedom—a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas," the prepared remarks said. "But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."

In his prepared speech, Sessions called for university officials and faculty members to "defend free expression boldly and unequivocally." He said that a "national recommitment to free speech on campus is long overdue," as is action to protect First Amendment rights. 

Sessions' prepared remarks also touched on the recent racial tensions that have risen in the wake of the violent clashes in Charlottesville Virginia, saying that "protecting free speech does not mean condoning violence like we saw recently in Charlottesville. Indeed, I call upon universities to stand up against those who would silence free expression by violence or other means on their campuses."

The speech was shunned by members of the the university's law center, who issued a statement prior to Sessions' remarks, saying, "We acknowledge our colleague's right to invite Attorney General Sessions to speak on campus. However, we, the undersigned, condemn the hypocrisy of Attorney General Sessions speaking about free speech."

The statement, which included more than 20 members of the law center, cited Sessions' role in the Trump administration, saying Sessions has actively denounced athletes engaging in free expression in the wake of Mr. Trump's divisive comments on NFL players who participate in silent protest of inequality during the national anthem. 

Faculty members also had concerns about how the event was only announced yesterday and that invitations were strictly limited, which they believe was meant to stifle protests. 

"This kind of government chilling of speech is precisely what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is meant to prevent. A man who fails to recognize paradigmatic violations of the First Amendment is a poor choice to speak about free speech on campuses," the group added in their statement. 

The Justice Department responded to the school's concerns, saying in a statement, "The attorney general fully supports the right of faculty members to express their views, even when, as here, the assumptions underlying their viewpoints are based  on false premises and inaccurate information."

This is a developing story.

CBS News' Paula Reid and Clare Hymes contributed to this report. 

  • Emily Tillett

    Emily Tillett is a politics reporter and video editor for CBS News Digital