I knew if I waited long enough, I’d find something to agree with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about.
It was never going to be about deporting young immigrants instead of putting them on a road to American citizenship.
It was definitely not about cracking down on journalists who report on leaked information.
It couldn’t be about his record on race relations, which helped capsize his effort to become a federal judge years ago.
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But his remarks about free speech on campus, delivered Tuesday at Georgetown Law School? Yes, taken at face value, I can get behind them.
Colleges should not become “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos,” he proclaimed.
When far-right pundits are prevented from speaking on campuses because of liberal protests run amok — as has happened at universities in California, Vermont and elsewhere — it’s wrong.
But whatever solid points Sessions made were thoroughly obscured by the billowing clouds of hypocrisy surrounding his speech.
For one thing, he criticized “safe spaces” provided by universities to protect students from ideas that upset them.
But his talk at Georgetown took place in a safe space of its own, with some students disinvited at the last minute, some law professors excluded, and follow-up questions tightly controlled and exceedingly polite.
As Georgetown Law professor Heidi Li Feldman, who said she had been denied permission to attend, put it: “To invite somebody who purports to be an authority on free speech who so profoundly misunderstands theories and law of free speech in our country … is laughable.”
Sessions called for tolerance for every kind of idea and lavished praise on Martin Luther King Jr. and the young girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. He took a moment to describe the KKK as “detestable.”
But beyond his own dubious history on racial equality, he’s the chief law enforcement official in an administration that stands for just the opposite. And he was appointed by a president elected in no small part by appealing to racism.
“In this great land, the government does not get to tell you what to think or what to say,” Sessions proclaimed at Georgetown as if he were the second coming of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He even quoted Holmes’s famous exhortation to protect “the thought that we hate.”
But soon after, under mild questioning, Sessions tried to make the logical leap from these exalted thoughts to supporting what President Donald Trump has been up to all week: urging NFL ownes to fire or suspend players who silently take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
“The president has free speech rights, too,” was about the best he could do in Trump’s defense.
And Sessions — who reportedly is not in the best standing with the president these days — was quick to say that the president was right about the NFL.
“I agree it’s a big mistake to protest by denigrating the symbols of our nation,” he said.
Sessions and Trump seem to put a lot of stock in respect for symbols like the flag, the Constitution and the national anthem.
But where was that patriotic respect when Trump relentlessly tried to undermine his predecessor’s legitimacy as president by questioning his birthplace? And where was the respect for democratic institutions in Trump’s constant bashing of the nation’s press? Or his dedication to free speech in his spokeswoman’s suggestion that an ESPN commentator should be fired for describing the president as a white supremacist?
At Georgetown, Jeff Sessions celebrated the American ideal, enshrined in the Constitution, of honoring views we may find disagreeable.
But when it comes time to protect and defend dissent in real life, his boss is part of the problem — and Sessions is nowhere to be found.