WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that speech codes at America’s universities are turning colleges into “an echo chamber of political and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
In a speech at the Georgetown Law Center in Washington, he announced that the Justice Department intervened in a lawsuit brought by a college student in Georgia who was ordered to stop delivering a religious message.
Sessions said the Justice Department will be filing more such actions in the weeks and months to come to “do its part in the struggle.”
A recent survey of public colleges and universities, which are bound by the First Amendment guarantees of free expression, found that one-third had written policies banning disfavored speech, he said.
“Administrators discourage or prohibit speech if there is even a threat that it will be met with protest,” Sessions said. “Protesters are routinely shutting down speeches and debates across the country in an effort to silence voices that insufficiently conform with their views.”
But he said campus speech codes also limit expression that merely makes other students uncomfortable. In the Georgia case, a student at Gwinnett College sued to challenge a requirement that allows protests and demonstrations only in two small areas on campus for no more than 18 hours a week.
Campus speech codes have come under frequent attack in recent years by conservative groups who say the rules tend to enforce a predominately liberal orthodoxy on the nation’s campuses.
PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression, said most of the examples given by the attorney general Tuesday involved conservative speakers shut down by liberal protest. But the group said universities are confronted with a growing number of hate crimes arising from hate speech.
“In an environment where the White House and administration have repeatedly failed to convincingly denounce hateful rhetoric and gestures, some Americans understandably fear that menacing speech is spreading untrammeled, and can morph into dangerous action,” PEN America said.
Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, noted that the Justice Department has charged a woman with unlawful conduct after she laughed while he was being praised at his Senate confirmation hearing.
“It’s more than a little ironic,” for Sessions, Vladeck said, “to point the finger at universities for suppressing unpopular speech. The more government officials seek to defend certain kinds of speech over others, the more that raises concerns under, rather than respecting, the First Amendment.”
Sessions said colleges too often fail to stand up to protests that are intended to suppress unpopular views. “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.”