Sessions talks politics, free speech at Amherst College

  • About 200 people listen to speakers on the Amherst College quad in a counter-event to an appearance by former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions at Johnson Chapel, seen in background, on Wednesday. The event began with 100 people then doubled soon after 8 p.m. when approximately 100 more walked out on Sessions’ speech. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jessica Reyes, a professor of economics at Amherst College, holds a banner outside of Johnson Chapel where former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was about to speak on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jessica Reyes, a professor of economics at Amherst College, holds a banner citing the college’s “Statement of Respect for Persons” in protest of an appearance by former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions at Johnson Chapel on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst College alum Ana Ascencio begins a program attended by about 200 students on the Amherst College quad to counter an appearance by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Johnson Chapel on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students enter Johnson Chapel on the Amherst College quad to hear former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 200 students gathered on the Amherst College quad to counter an appearance by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Johnson Chapel, seen in background, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students enter Johnson Chapel on the Amherst College quad to hear former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 200 students listen to speakers on the Amherst College quad during an event to counter an appearance by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Johnson Chapel, seen in background, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2019 12:19:22 AM

AMHERST — Former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions’ appearance at Amherst College drew criticism and laughter from students who protested his speech on Wednesday night.

But Sessions took the protests as an indication of what he called the “echo chamber of political correctness” prevailing on American college campuses today.

“A good college that has no intellectual diversity is not a healthy place,” Sessions said to a crowd of around 80 at the Johnson Chapel. “It’s too close to indoctrination to suit me.”

The event, organized by the Amherst College Republicans and the national conservative youth organization Young America’s Foundation, was open to Amherst College students, staff and faculty only. Photographs were not allowed inside the building.

Robert Barasch, president of the Amherst College Republicans, said his club invited Sessions to bring a “diverse perspective” to campus.

Throughout the opening of Sessions’ speech, laughter from students came as Sessions asked his “fellow college Republicans to hang in there,” stating that he was under the “impression that college Republicans nationwide are having a harder time.”

A group of students rose to their feet after 10 minutes and walked out of the speech, and soon after, chants could be heard outside the chapel.

Sessions spoke for less than an hour, on topics ranging from his choice to recuse himself from investigations related to the 2016 presidential campaign, his opinions on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and his views on free speech rights at universities.

Sessions, who had been a Republican senator from Alabama since 1997, was appointed attorney general by President Trump in February 2017. His resignation in November 2018 came at the request of Trump, who had long and publicly criticized Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation.

The issue of recusal was one that Sessions said he had to deal with “right off the bat” once confirmed as attorney general.

“I felt comfortable and correct that I should recuse myself,” Sessions said Wednesday. After consulting with the ethics officer at the Department of Justice, he said, “It was not appropriate to investigate a campaign I played a role in.”

On the recently released Mueller report, Sessions said it was “complete and thorough” and said it encompassed hundreds of interviews and enormous amounts of emails.

“The process that was initiated here was carried forward vigorously and with integrity,” Sessions said. “The process was followed and a decision has now been rendered, and I think it deserves respect. I think it’s about time to accept the results and let’s get on with the business of America.”

Early on in his tenure as attorney general, Sessions said that “dangerous anti-speech” trends made First Amendment rights on college campuses a priority for the Trump administration.

“We were concerned about the American heritage of free speech eroding on college campuses,” he said. “We concluded at the department that we had a high interest, even a duty, to defend free speech.”

In defending conservatives such as Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro, Sessions denounced universities that prevented them from appearing to speak.

In December 2018, the University of California, Berkeley, settled a lawsuit with the Young America’s Foundation over canceled appearances by Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. The college paid $70,000 for attorneys’ fees and agreed to make policy changes to major campus events.

“American universities were once the center of academic freedom, where unpopular opinions could be had, argued and defended,” Sessions said. “But it is transforming now into echo chamber of political correctness.”

Prior to Sessions’ speech, Amherst College economics professor Jessica Reyes held a sign that read “Jeff Sessions is a crime against humanity.”

“Amherst College has standards for behavior and those standards don’t protect hate speech or violent actions,” Reyes said. “By a reasonable assessment of our standards, he should not be welcome to our community. He’s not welcome to our community.”

Reyes criticised Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy against illegal immigration. As attorney general, Sessions formed a partnership between the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to prosecute anyone crossing the southwest border and to separate children from parents.

“He brutally wrenched children from their families to be sent back to be raped and killed,” Reyes said.

A coinciding event with Sessions’ speech, hosted by the Amherst College Direct Action Coordinating Committee, hosted speakers rallying against Sessions’ appearance on campus.

Members of the student group declined to comment for this story.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.




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