Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday spoke with Fox & Friends hosts about the ongoing debate over free speech, but swiftly contradicted himself as soon as the hosts broached the topic of NFL protests.
“No place in the country should we have more robust discussion than on college campuses,” said Sessions, referencing his visit to Georgetown Law School where he had spoken on the same topic a day earlier. “I truly believe, in talking to a lot of young college graduates, that we have drifted way too far in controlling speech. …We can intervene and will intervene in various lawsuits where we believe students are being overly-constricted in their right to speak out and express themselves. It is a civil right. The Department of Justice has a duty to defend people’s civil rights.”
Sessions then pointed to an example a few days prior, where conservative radio host Ben Shapiro — who has repeatedly claimed that transgender individuals have a mental illness and has openly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement — spoke at the University of California, Berkeley campus, causing the school to spend $600,000 on security measures meant to shield him from protesters. The school also offered free counseling services to students who felt negatively affected by Shapiro’s speech.
“There is a bias, I think, personally, pretty clearly against conservative speech,” Sessions argued. “…They sent out a notice before [Shapiro] came to Berkeley and said if it upsets you so badly we will give you counseling for the students who might be faint or something if he spoke there. This is, kind of ridiculous. We need robust, open, debate on college campuses. That is the ideal that has made our universities great.”
Once the Fox & Friends hosts pivoted to the ongoing NFL protests, however, Sessions’ tone noticeably shifted.
“What about the football field?” host Abby Huntsman asked, referring to the hundreds of NFL players who had begun taking a knee or linking arms during the national anthem, in protest over police brutality against the black community. “You have said that the NFL players, they should stop kneeling for the national anthem. A lot of critics of yours this morning saying, well, isn’t that a symbol of free speech?”
“Look, I believe that every American should, as a matter of propriety and love of country, should not place their political views in a situation where you don’t stand for the pledge or the national anthem,” Sessions replied. “…They can make their protests any other place. If the owners allow them, they can speak out I guess on the field. But as a matter of propriety of love of country and decency, you should stand when the national anthem is played.”
When pressed on whether the NFL should implement a rule requiring players to stand during the national anthem or face consequences, Sessions replied, “I think it should be a formal rule of the league…. They should be able to say to the players, if you are on our field in our game, paid by us, you should respect the flag and the national anthem.”
Sessions’ contradictory remarks expanded on his Georgetown Law speech on Tuesday, when the attorney general lamented the myriad restrictions on free speech across college campuses, claiming that they had become “shelter[s] for fragile egos.” A short while later, in a follow-up Q&A session, Sessions reversed course, referencing comments President Trump had made days earlier in which he called anyone who had taken a knee during the anthem a “son of a bitch.”
“…The president has free speech rights too,” Sessions argued. “He sends soldiers out every day to defend this country under the flag of the United States, under the national anthem, and the unity that those symbols call on us to adhere to.”
The president does not, as an arm of the U.S. government, have the right to prevent NFL players from expressing dissent during the national anthem, as they are protected by the very free speech rights to which Sessions referred.
In an op-ed on Monday, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Eric Reid explained the purpose behind the “Take a Knee” protests, noting that, while many have painted them as politically-motivated and unpatriotic in nature, the reality was quite different.
“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel,” he wrote, referring to the decision he and former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made last year to kneel during the anthem. “It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest. It should go without saying that I love my country and I’m proud to be an American. But, to quote James Baldwin, ‘exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.'”