Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to the college community about free speech on April 24 in an event jointly organized by the Amherst College Republicans (ACR) and the conservative youth organization Young America’s Foundation (YAF). The event was held in Johnson Chapel, with only Amherst students, faculty and staff allowed to attend.
Sessions resigned in November at the request of President Donald Trump, who expressed dissatisfaction with Sessions’ recusal from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions recently reentered public conversation after a redacted version of the Mueller report was released on April 18, prompting discussion of Sessions’ role in relation to allegations of obstruction of justice against Trump. This is Sessions’ first public appearance since the release of the report.
His talk — which comes amidst increasing tensions over intolerance on campus, spurred by the swastika incident, controversy over the Common Language Document and transphobic comments in the ACR GroupMe, among other incidents — was met with widespread opposition from members of the college community, many of whom boycotted the event in response. According to the YAF website, the event cost around $20,000. The event was funded in part by a donation from an anonymous donor to ACR; the rest was covered by YAF.
Over the course of his career, Sessions has faced fierce criticism from progressives for his staunch conservatism, both in his time heading the U.S. Justice Department and in his 20-year tenure as Alabama senator. As attorney general, Sessions enacted strict “zero-tolerance” immigration policies, rolled back Obama-era guidance on issues ranging from Title IX to civil rights interpretation and defended Trump administration policies such as family separation along the U.S.–Mexico border and the travel ban prohibiting entry from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Rob Barasch ’19, the president of ACR, introduced Sessions by speaking of his personal history and viewpoints, before emphasizing the importance of an openness and respect to different viewpoints. “In the spirit of diversity, Mr. Sessions is here … While I understand that some of you may disagree with him politically, I ask that you show him respect worthy of the office he held,” he said. Barasch’s remarks drew snickers from the audience.
Sessions began his talk by directly addressing Republicans and conservatives in the crowd, comparing his experience at Huntington College, at which “[he and his] wife Mary founded the first Young Republicans club,” with that of the Amherst Republican experience. He also joked directly about how Amherst Republicans have had “a little difficulty around campus,” alluding to the ACR GroupMe incident.
“We believed in our principles, and we advocated for them … Even though people did not respect us, I never felt threatened in any way,” said Sessions. “My impression is that college Republicans nationwide are having a harder time today. Facing more hostility and bullying that is just disrespectful. I don’t believe it’s good that that happens; I think it’s wrong.”
He then proceeded to speak about the potential harm that comes from a lack of intellectual diversity, particularly on college campuses. With the “loss of the great Hadley Arkes, there’s not a single conservative on [Amherst’s] faculty,” he said, which he viewed as coming “too close to indoctrination for [his] liking.”
As Sessions continued to note the importance of free speech and respect for multiple perspectives, nearly 70 students stood up and began walking out of the talk in protest. One student waved a rainbow pride flag as she left. Sessions responded to the walkout by comparing it to a talk he gave at the University of Minnesota on April 15, where protesters interrupted his speech at constant intervals with excerpts from a speech criticizing his policies.
Using the importance of structure and respect as a turning point, Sessions shifted the topic to address a more specific concern: the Mueller report. Speaking about the value of the special counsel law and praising Mueller for his professionalism and experience, he affirmed the work of the investigation.
“Special Counsel Bob Mueller is a very experienced prosecutor,” he said. “He well knew that his work would be watched, reviewed and criticized. He knew that his integrity was on the line when he accepted the job … It was a vigorously conducted investigation, you can be sure. Some may say it was excessive; I say it was complete and thorough.”
After detailing the attorney general’s and deputy attorney general’s role in such investigations, he explained that he initially saw no reason to recuse himself, but changed his mind after talking with an ethics officer.
“I had to face an ethical charge right off the bat. I was asked, at the Senate confirmation, ‘Will you recuse yourself?’ I saw no need to at that time, but I said that I would review the situation with the ethics officer at the Department of Justice. So I did so,” he said. “He recommended I recuse myself. I read the regulation that he cited; I thought it was clear and right. I was part of the [Trump] campaign, I held a title … so I thought it wasn’t appropriate to investigate a campaign in which you played a role.”
Concluding his discussion of the Mueller report, he made the case for accepting the investigation’s lack of indictments on collusion or obstruction of justice, although he acknowledged Congress’ “oversight of the powers.”
“After a long and intensive two years, the special counsel report and decision … has found no basis for the criminal charges against the president,” he said. “Congress has said it now intends to reignite some of its ongoing hearings and investigations. I assume they’ll call [Attorney General] Barr, Mueller and [Deputy Attorney General] Rosenstein to testify … They do have oversight of the powers, and at least the House will make sure they exercise those.”
“The process was followed and a decision has now been rendered, and I think it deserves respect,” he added. “Congress certainly has oversight of the powers, but the nation has placed great confidence in the special counsel process. I think it’s about time to accept the results, and let’s get on with the business of America.”
Portraying the Mueller investigation as a success, Sessions broadened his analysis, speaking about the importance of laws in protecting justice. He celebrated the domestic situation in particular, naming the U.S. as having the “greatest legal system in the history of the world,” while also cautioning that “there is no perfect justice system.”
Sessions then returned to the issue of free speech, tying it to ideas of constitutional rights and the design of the American legal system. “The attack on free speech strikes at the heart of what it means to be American,” he said.
He also decried limitations on speech, again returning to college campuses to reinforce his point. He made the case for instead directly confronting speech viewed as pernicious or incorrect and warned against policing speech by subjective opinion.
“It cannot be that one can say, ‘Your words offend me, your words hurt my feelings, therefore you must shut up. You can’t talk.’ Subjective idea about one person can shut down the free speech guaranteed in the Constitution by another? Not right.” he said. “Unfounded arguments should be confronted by better arguments, more persuasive arguments. Not by force.”
To show that regressions in free speech are a problem at college campuses specifically, he cited a number of recent incidents across the country. He then critiqued “free speech zones,” or areas set aside for active protest, attesting to the universality of First Amendment rights.
Bringing the conversation closer to Amherst, Sessions pointed to an incident at Middlebury College last year where protesters became violent in their opposition to conservative speaker Charles Murray.
Sessions concluded his speech by speaking about the noble purpose of universities and the roles that students will play in the future. He again emphasized the importance of discourse and reasoning “to reach the objective truth” and encouraged students to move forward optimistically.
“You’re in an important time in history. You’re on the frontlines, you’ll be deciding these battles,” he said. “Do not despair, though, because in this country, truth has, from time to time, been submerged, but it has always risen again. You will not yield, I know. You will not abandon the field … May you preserve, protect and defend the great heritage you’ve been given in this country, and by doing so, you’ll honour those who’ve done before, who’ve sacrificed for us.”
A Q&A session followed Sessions’ speech. Students asked a variety of questions, which covered Sessions’ drug and immigration policy, his thoughts on why Trump won the 2016 presidential election and his personal views on political polarization as it relates to discourse.
Noteworthy moments during the Q&A panel include his citing of executive privilege in keeping his conversations with Trump private and his declaration that “there’s nothing wrong or morally indecent about conservative free-market Republicans,” which received applause from a number of students.
Another notable moment was Sessions’ contention that the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan law designed to reform the criminal justice system and reduce recidivism, went too far. “A lot of people are just dangerous,” he said. “You can’t just have a prayer meeting with them, release them and expect them not to murder someone.”
Students had mixed reactions to his talk, some agreeing with his assessments of free speech as an issue and others viewing his comments as not contributing to productive conversation.
“One cannot escape the reality that Trump’s America has genuine issues and concerns, and I believe that their voice must be taken seriously,” said Alex Liu ’19 in an email interview. “Attempting to shame people into submission in a politically diverse society is ultimately counter-productive.”
“It was very amusing when he chose to defend ACR and paint its members as the victims of a hyper-dogmatic environment in his speech,” said John Woodward ’22. “I agreed with the former attorney general that free speech is a fundamental right and that political polarization has contributed to a contentious climate, but — for a talk that was supposed to talk about the rise of President Trump — it seemed like more of a denunciation of liberal college culture and a love letter to the Founding Fathers than anything else.”
Several ACR executive board (E-board) members expressed that Sessions, though a valuable speaker, should have come at another time given the current campus climate.
“I think Sessions coming at some point would be appropriate, but with all the stuff going on around the college, I don’t think it’d really be best at this point, for the club or for the student body in general,” said Brantley Mayers ’19, the former vice-president of ACR. “It’s best for the student body and for myself to put down the swords and move on from that whole episode.”
Mayers stepped down in accordance with penalties issued by the Judiciary Council of the Association of Amherst Students after the ACR GroupMe comments came to light — several E-board members asked to step down have yet to comply with the ruling.
Barasch, however, disagreed with Mayers. “I think that it’s very timely for [Sessions] to come now,” he said. “I mean, the Mueller report came out last Thursday — I think he’s planning on talking about it as part of his speech, and people can ask about that in a Q&A. For something that’s been dominating the news cycle for so many years and has really just finally come to light, I think it’s perfect for people to have this opportunity to be able to speak with him.”
“People are asking, ‘Why did you have to bring a conservative at all?’ And I mean, what I’m saying is that we don’t have a conservative presence on this campus,” he added. “At this school, one of our biggest strengths, something we pride ourselves so much on, is diversity and inclusion, and I think that we need to really understand that to include both political ideologies.”