What Sessions doesn't know about free speech on campus

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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: It's galling to hear Jeff Sessions say free speech is under attack on campuses
  • If he saw lively debates in my class, he'd know free speech is doing just fine, he says

Issac Bailey is an interim member of The Charlotte Observer editorial board and the James K. Batten professor of public policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Attorney General Jeff Sessions is maybe the worst person in the country to scold others about the need to cherish constitutional rights, as he did this week at Georgetown University. Or maybe only the second worst, because it's hard to top the hypocrisy of his boss.

According to Sessions, college campuses have created too many safe spaces and have quashed dissent.
"Freedom of speech and thought on the American campus are under attack," Sessions told a small crowd Tuesday at Georgetown.
    Issac Bailey
    While he was speaking, I was preparing for a class later that day. I teach two journalism seminars at Davidson College in North Carolina. That day's session included a presentation by two white students leading a discussion about Fox News commentator Juan Williams' controversial book, "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About it." (Williams is also known for groundbreaking work about the civil rights movement, among many other career highlights.)
    My class is diverse and part of the college's Africana Studies Department. To complete the assignment, the two student presenters had to demonstrate they fully understood the subject matter, took it seriously -- no matter their personal views and preferences -- and could explain how it related to a 20-year-old shooting at Davidson that involved the deaths of a young black man and a young white cop. Their classmates got to challenge everything they said.
    There were numerous passionate exchanges in my classroom as students grappled with major moments included in Williams' book, including Bill Cosby's now-infamous "pound cake" speech during a 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which prompted Williams to write the book. Are things such as the racial gaps in educational achievement, the crime rate and income inequality the result of individual black failure and irresponsibility, systemic problems, or both? Are black leaders failing us because they don't scold rappers who use ugly, misogynistic language and glorify the worst parts of their upbringings? Or are rappers speaking hard truths in ways designed to reach an intended audience that may miss the message if they said it differently?
    I noticed a few students looking my way, hoping I'd intervene during a few particularly unnerving moments in class discussion. I didn't. The students struggled through and got to a good place themselves, as they always find a way to do. They are tougher and smarter and braver than Sessions seems to realize. To double down on the point I wanted to get across -- that we must cherish vigorous critical thinking -- I assigned each of them a short paper in which they must explain why those with whom they disagreed might be right.
    That class, like so many others occurring at Davidson and at other colleges and universities throughout the country, was a safe space, but not in the way that critics such as Sessions might think of it. It was a safe space to rigorously debate and discuss the most vexing issues of the day in ways that weren't always comfortable, to reflect upon how we became who we are now as a country, to be confronted with the harrowing stories of those around us that often go unnoted, to learn, to think, to research, to challenge and be challenged.
    The students I've come across get it better than those screaming that 21st-century college students are "snowflakes." They got it when I explained why I don't give trigger warnings when those who disagreed with that decision engaged in a grown-up conversation about it instead of walking out of the room.
    That's why it is a bit galling to hear a man such as Sessions claim there's a liberal attack on free speech when he heads a Justice Department that prosecuted a woman for giggling during his confirmation hearing and plans to prosecute her again. It's hard to take his supposed love for our constitutional rights seriously when he has worked to re-up a civil asset forfeiture program that takes away the property of Americans who have been convicted of no crimes -- and often hadn't even been charged.

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    It's galling to hear a man scolding colleges and universities about free speech, then defending his boss, President Donald Trump, who spent this past weekend using his position as the most powerful government official in the country to advocate the firing of private citizens who are saying and doing things he doesn't like. Someone needs to tell Sessions that the First Amendment frowns upon governmental power being used that way.
    If Sessions was so committed to free speech on campus, why didn't he insist that those faculty who took a knee to protest his appearance or students shouting questions from outside the building be allowed to participate in a question-and-answer session after his speech? Maybe there was a snowflake on the Georgetown campus on Tuesday after all.