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How the Trump Justice Department is Defending Free Speech

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants college campuses to become what many of them once were—places of “robust debate.” That is a worthy project, and I wrote about it this week in The Weekly Standard. By the way, I recently joined the Center for Equal Opportunity as a senior fellow.

“The American university was once the center of academic freedom,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his speech at the Georgetown Law Center this week. It was “a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas.” But over the years it has become “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.

Sessions called for “a national recommitment to free speech on campus.” Administrators and faculty would defend free expression “boldly and unequivocally,” he said, and the Justice Department would do its part by enforcing federal law, defending free speech, and protecting “students’ free expression”—of all points of view.

As a demonstration of its intentions, the Justice Department has filed a “Statement of Interest” in a campus free speech case from Georgia Gwinnett College that is almost unpronounceable: Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. At issue is the constitutionality of a school policy that limits student expressive activity to two very small “free-speech zones. Sessions said there would be more such filings, and a department officer confirmed that there would be a second next week.

Federal law provides for the not widely known Statement of Interest. It says that the attorney general may send any officer of the department to any state or federal district to attend to the interests of the United States in a suit pending in a federal or state court.
The Obama Justice Department used statements of interest in what the New York Times in 2015 called “a novel legal campaign that began early in the administration and has expanded.” Where such statements typically were filed in cases involving national security or diplomacy, now they were being filed in private cases involving civil rights. According to the Times, the cases concerned legal aid, transgender students, juvenile prisoners in solitary detention, and people who take videos of police officers. And while the filings didn’t say which party should win, “they [gave] clear support to plaintiffs and put the federal government in cases ... at the forefront of civil rights law.”

“By using such court filings in civil rights cases,’ said the Times, “the Obama administration is saying it has an interest in preserving constitutional rights in the same way it has an interest in foreign policy. ... Neither career Justice Department officials nor longtime advocates can recall such a concerted effort to insert the federal government into local civil rights cases.”

Sessions’ speech raises the question of whether the Trump Justice Department will indeed make a similarly concerted effort to insert the government into local free speech cases arising from colleges and universities. The government’s involvement could help. After all, as Sessions said in his speech, “[A]ction to ensure First Amendment rights [on campus is long] overdue.”