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Sessions says free speech rights are 'under attack' at schools. But he sides with Trump on NFL protests

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions pushed the Justice Department into a roiling culture war on Tuesday with a fierce defense of free speech on college campuses — even as he sided with President Trump in condemning NFL players who protest during the national anthem.

Sessions thus put the administration on both sides of a bitter public debate about where and when it is appropriate for Americans to express their political views.

At universities, some conservative speakers have faced crowds of angry protesters, leading to violence and property damage on some campuses. In several NFL stadiums, football players have knelt for the national anthem to protest police killings in black communities, using their prominence as professional athletes to register silent dissent.

In a speech Friday at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, Sessions backed the speakers — and condemned the players.

“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” he said. Universities that once were “a place of robust debate” were becoming “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Sessions said the Justice Department would begin to intervene in court cases where the government believes colleges are violating the 1st Amendment by improperly limiting free speech.

As a start, the department filed a “statement of interest” Tuesday to back a lawsuit filed by students at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. The students say they were barred from distributing Christian literature near the school library and told to stay inside the school’s two designated “free speech zones.”

Sessions said the students were “improperly constricted” and that the Justice Department would seek to “affirm the proper parameters of free speech” at the public college, which is part of Georgia’s state university system.

“Starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle,” Sessions said. “We will enforce federal law, defend free speech and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come.”

A crowd of Georgetown students and faculty protested outside before Sessions spoke. Some waved signs denouncing Sessions for his hard-line views on immigration, including his staunch opposition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In his speech, Sessions denounced several incidents in which controversial speakers came under fire on college campuses.

He cited conservative radio host Ben Shapiro’s speech at UC Berkeley on Sept. 14. Police in riot gear protected the venue while hundreds of people protested outside, a group that Sessions called “a mob.”

“In the end, Mr. Shapiro spoke to a packed house,” Sessions said “And to my knowledge, no one fainted, no one was unsafe. No one needed counseling, I hope.”

Berkeley police said there were no reports of injuries or damage to property from the protest.

Sessions was less charitable to professional football players who have exhibited their 1st Amendment rights by kneeling or linking arms during the national anthem.

He expressed strong support for Trump, who has repeatedly called for the NFL to fire those players and for the public to boycott their games until they are punished.

Sessions called it “a big mistake to protest in that fashion,” describing the players’ protests as a blow to American unity.

“If they take a provocative act, they can expect to be condemned, and the president has a right to condemn them and I would condemn them,” he said in response to a question from a student.

He also defended Trump’s harsh comments. “Well, the president has free speech rights too,” Sessions said.

He denied a contradiction with his stance on student protests. “The freedom of every individual player is paramount in the Constitution,” he said. “It’s protected, and we have to protect it. I think it’s not a contradiction there.”

The controversy began last year when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling to protest police brutality against black people. Several other players later followed his example.

In a speech Friday in Huntsville, Ala., Trump demanded that NFL team owners fire players who refuse to stand when the national anthem is played before games.

His scolding spurred strong pushback from players, and a much wider protest throughout the league Sunday.

With some owners joining their teams on the field, dozens of player knelt in silent protest to Trump’s comments, while others opted to stand and lock arms. Three teams — the Seattle Seahawks, the Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers — stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem.

Trump kept up the criticism early Tuesday, tweeting that the NFL should require players to stand during the song as a condition of employment.

“The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!” Trump tweeted.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

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