At Georgetown Law School Tuesday, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered remarks on free speech with an emphasis on how the issue is being handled on college campuses across the country. The event, hosted by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, was met with protests by some students and faculty members. The very fact that Sessions’ address was opposed at all is a damning indictment of how a certain section of the nation has chosen to interpret the idea of free speech.
The Attorney General’s talk touched on the legal history of free speech in America, referring often to the civil rights movement, which – it could be argued – triumphed precisely because contentious speech was protected by law. He also expressed his concerns over the widespread assault upon this most sacred of rights, fueled on many college campuses around the country.
Sessions reminded students that these college campuses are – or should be – the very bastions of open and unfettered debate. He expressed hope that students “will take part in the right of every American: the free, robust, and sometimes contentious exchange of ideas.”
The Protest Against Free Speech
There can hardly be a less logical or more anti-intellectual reaction to a talk about free speech than to protest it under the guise of defending free speech. Protesters outside the event pointed out that they were not invited to the Attorney General’s address. Such an objection, however, is disingenuous on many levels. Most events of this kind are attended by invitation only. Since the protesters had already made up their minds that they opposed the Attorney General’s remarks, it is likely that their only intention – had they been admitted – would have been to shout down, or otherwise disrupt, the speaker.
According to a Fox News live blog of the event, demonstrators outside the building held signs that said, “Free speech is not hate speech,” and, “Defend Free Speech Denounce Sessions.” Ironically, Sessions, in his remarks, directly pointed out that, indeed, free speech is not hate speech:
“There are those who will say that certain speech isn’t deserving of protection. They will say that some speech is hurtful – even hateful. They will point to the very speech and beliefs that we abhor as Americans. But the right of free speech does not exist only to protect the ideas upon which most agree at a given moment in time.”
Rewriting the Standard
The modern American radical left has chosen to create its own new standard for free speech, however, just as it has created its own standards for patriotism, truth, and American values.
As is the case with every social or cultural issue, the left begins with the premise that every positive creates a negative. Their argument is that every individual who succeeds does so only by causing another to fail. Everyone who accumulates wealth does so by denying it to someone else. Those who freely exercise their rights do so by denying those rights to others (and, from this, comes the notion of oppression and the myth of “white privilege”).
Thus, the narrative extends, also, to free speech; expressing a specific belief oppresses those who hold a contrary view and, so, speech is likened to an offensive weapon. Of course, this standard for speech is no two-way street; expression of left-wing ideals does not harm anybody, they believe, but the expression of right-wing ideals does.
In this way, leftists reconcile their view of themselves as free speech champions with their actions denying freedom of speech to conservatives and libertarians. Their opinions are benevolent and, therefore, deserving of protection; opposing views are malevolent and should be silenced.
During his remarks, Sessions stated that his Department of Justice intends to push back against this increasingly warped idea of free speech on campuses. Citing recent incidents at various colleges, he rejected the idea that students should be protected from speech with which they might disagree.
Citing legal precedent, he also dismissed the notion that schools should bar particular speakers for fear of repercussion from student – or other – protest groups. Drawing upon a Supreme Court ruling from a 1963 case, Watson v. City of Memphis, Sessions quoted, “constitutional rights may not be denied simply because of hostility to their assertion or exercise.”
It is time for a for a national debate about free speech. Not one about the merits of free speech but about how far we are willing to go to protect it. Sessions has put the nation’s academic institutions on notice. “A national re-commitment to free speech on campus is long overdue,” he said, “and action to ensure First Amendment rights is overdue.”
This is not an issue that transcends the partisan divide; all attempts at shutting down free speech come from the political left. It is the left that must defend and rationalize its objections to the free and open expression of ideas and the spirit and word of the Constitution’s First Amendment.