Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday the Trump administration will stand up to “bullies on campus” who stifle free speech at colleges and universities, while a top Republican senator urged him to back up the tough talk with more legal action to support students snared by speech codes.
“This has gone too far,” Mr. Sessions said in the District of Columbia. “Suppression of competing voices is not the American way. We have reached a pivotal, perhaps even a historic, moment. It is time to stand up to the bullies on campus and in our culture.”
He delivered his warning to colleges during the Justice Department’s Forum on Free Speech in Higher Education, held to coincide with Constitution Day, marking the day in 1787 when the founding document was signed in Philadelphia.
Mr. Sessions said nowhere in the U.S. is freedom of speech more threatened than on college campuses, where he ticked off battles between students and administrators intent on limiting activities ranging from the controversial to the commonplace — including restricting the ability to hand out copies of the Constitution itself.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, said those sorts of moves should be an invitation to Mr. Sessions and his lawyers to pursue cases or to weigh in where the students themselves have sued.
“I think the credibility of the U.S. Department of Justice would be important here just to say, ‘Here is the law, here is what the Supreme Court has said, here is what the First Amendment requires,’” he said.
Mr. Alexander said that while the Education Department has a role to play in advocating for free speech, it’s up to the Justice Department to enforce the First Amendment against those who would violate it.
That’s particularly true at public colleges and universities, where, because of their state connections, they are directly bound by the First Amendment.
Canceled appearances by conservative speakers at the University of California, Berkeley, have drawn particular ire from the right.
President Trump has pushed the issue of political correctness on college campuses since he was on the campaign trial. It is a natural issue for Mr. Trump, who has appealed to his base by his willingness to tackle the culture war’s hottest issues.
In March, the Trump administration held a discussion called “Crisis on the College Campus.” The event focused on two issues: opioid abuse and the suppression of free speech.
But Sanford J. Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, said the Trump administration has overblown the issue to score political points with its base.
“With respect, the attorney general is off base,” Mr. Ungar told The Washington Times. “I don’t know how many colleges or universities he has visited recently or how they’ve been chosen. There is great deal of ferment about free speech and related issues on American campuses today, but they remain a bastion of the free exchange of ideas across the political spectrum despite the cliches that describe them otherwise.”
He also said the Justice Department’s powers to enforce First Amendment violations on campuses are limited.
“The attorney general can make noise and stir up anger and resentment,” he said. “He can play a mischievous role, but in the current political climate few will look to him for guidance on the definition and practice of free expression in our time.”
Mr. Sessions says his department has intervened in several lawsuits in which students say their free speech was blocked.
One such case involved Gwinnett College in Georgia where students were permitted small “free speech zones” that required approval from campus administrators before they could talk.
And the Justice Department weighed in on a lawsuit students filed against the University of Michigan after campus bureaucrats created the Bias Response Team — a name Mr. Sessions called “Orwellian” — tasked with investigating claims of “bothersome speech” or harassment.
Within days of the Justice’s intervention, the university changed its policy, Mr. Sessions said, calling the move “a positive step.”