WASHINGTON (CN) – Empty seats pockmarked the Georgetown University auditorium where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke Tuesday about free speech on college campuses, but a hundred students protesting outside the venue said they were denied entry.
Early on in the 35-minute event, the former Alabama senator emphasized that the First Amendment protects everyone from student protesters to professional athletes.
Sessions had to revisit this point during a question-and-answer period at the end of his appearance, however, when pressed about President Donald Trump’s recent calls for the NFL to fire any players who protest when the national anthem is played before games.
“The president has free speech rights, too,” Sessions said.
Sessions told the audience of about a hundred at the Georgetown University Law Center that free-speech rights bar the prosecution of any demonstrating players, but that does not immunize them from criticism.
“I agree that it’s a big mistake to protest in that fashion, because it weakens the commitment we have to this nation that has provides us this protection,” Sessions said.
During his talk, Sessions railed against what is known as the heckler’s veto, where a person asserting their free-speech rights is silenced because hecklers reacting to the speech became violent.
Saying it has become something of a cottage industry in higher education, Sessions recalled the masked student activists who tried to shut down a talk by social scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College last March.
“The protesters, many wearing masks – a common tactic used by the detestable Ku Klux Klan – pulled fire alarms, surrounded the speakers and began physically assaulting them,” Sessions said.
The students had taken issue with Murray’s 1994 book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” where he argued that the black underclass persisted partly because of genetic racial differences in intelligence, as reported by Newsweek.
Because of the protest, Murray was forced to give his speech at another location.
Sessions warned the Georgetown students Tuesday that free speech is under attack on college campuses.
“The American university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate – a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions said. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
Outside McDonough Hall, third-year Georgetown law student Imani Waweru said he joined a group of about 100 protesting the attorney general’s speech because of his opposition to various policies Sessions has implemented in his short tenure.
“It is our opinion that Jeff Sessions himself – and our administration – has consistently demonstrated acts that, in our opinion, are counter to the idea of free speech, counter to the idea of the First Amendment,” Waweru said in an interview after the speech.
Despite dozens of empty seats in the auditorium, some students protesting outside the McDonough Hall said they had been denied entry.
“What we have here today is a number of students who wish they could have attended the event to ask challenging questions,” said Waweru, who was sporting a “Black Lawyers Matter” T-shirt. “Our voices were silenced.”
Waweru accused the law school administration of tightly controlling who could attend the talk, saying the university extended invitations to students on Monday only to revoke them later.
Georgetown spokeswoman Tanya Weinberg offered an explanation for the guest-list confusion, noting that anyone denied entry could watch an on-campus simulcast of the event.
Though invitations were sent out to approximately 385 students, Weinberg said, “a number of students who were not on the invitation list RSVP’d to the event.”
“The invitation was nontransferable, so those students were notified of the error by email,” Weinberg added.
Georgetown set capacity for the event at fewer than 300 seats and did not count the final attendee numbers, Weinberg said.
She noted that invitations were extended to students of Randy Barnett, a professor who organized the event, and past attendees of events organized by Georgetown’s Center for the Constitution.
Barnett is the center’s director, and invitations were also extended to guests of the professor and the Department of Justice as well as the center’s scholars.
Before the talk, several Georgetown faculty members joined the protesting students on the steps of McDonough Hall, where they took a knee and linked arms.
A day earlier, more than 30 faculty members released a statement condemning what they called the hypocrisy of inviting a member of the Trump administration to speak about free speech.
“President Trump calls African-American professional football players kneeling in quiet protest ‘sons of bitches’ and angry, armed white supremacists ‘very fine people,’” the statement said.
They also took issue with the Justice Department’s prosecution of Desiree Fairooz, a member of the anti-war group Code Pink, who was arrested and later tried for laughing during Sessions’ confirmation hearing.
“A man who fails to recognize paradigmatic violations of the First Amendment is a poor choice to speak about free speech on campuses,” faculty said in the statement.