Thank you, Jesse, for that kind introduction and for your strong leadership.
On this Constitution Day, let us take a moment to ponder the enormity of the revolution that the Founding Fathers enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. At the time of the Founding, no country on earth guaranteed in writing the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, or petition. At the time of the Founding, no country on earth was governed by a free and equal people. And at the time of the Founding, no government on earth derived its just powers from the consent of the governed.
Today, 231 years later, the grand American experiment of democracy and free government has changed the world. The Constitution has freed the human mind from tyranny and shielded the human conscience from government interference, intrusion, and indoctrination. The Constitution has raised the United States to singular heights as a free, fair, and prosperous nation. And the Constitution has sparked a global revolution in government’s relationship to the governed and stood as a beacon enlightening the human experience for nations and peoples all around the world.
The First Amendment is perhaps the Founding Fathers’ boldest—and most essential—masterstroke. The Founding Fathers guaranteed all of the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Founders recognized that, without these first freedoms, there could be no freedom of conscience—and that without freedom of conscience, there could be no government by a free people, of a free people, or for a free people. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “[f]reedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”
That is one of the most important lessons of our Constitutional experience: the First Amendment performs its most vital function whenever those in power seek to preserve their power by suppressing free speech. That was true in the earliest days of the Republic, when the Alien and Sedition Acts criminalized criticism of the federal government. It was true during the Cold War, when so-called subversives were purged from public institutions because of their private political views. And it was true during the Civil Rights movement, when judges issued blanket injunctions to silence—and even jail—civil rights activists.
Today the country faces a new challenge to free speech in a new forum. Ironically, this forum once served as the incubator of free speech—but today, it far too often has become an inhibitor of free and open discourse.
I speak, of course, of institutions of higher education. Those institutions are charged with the sacred trust of preparing each new generation of young Americans for a lifetime of active and engaged citizenship. Yet in recent years, some over-reaching administrators and ideologically-motivated faculty have abused their positions of authority to act as censors rather than as pedagogues. Words, they argue, are as injurious as physical blows. Ideas, they say, are as dangerous as weapons. Speech, they contend, is hurtful precisely because it can raise hard questions. Instead of empowering students to expand their minds in the marketplace of ideas, these misguided administrators and faculty have enfeebled students to seek refuge from intellectual debate in the confines of campus speech codes.
The First Amendment demands better. The First Amendment demands eternal vigilance in safeguarding free speech through all political fads and fashions of the day. The First Amendment demands eternal vigilance in safeguarding free speech regardless of public clamor or private comfort. The First Amendment demands eternal vigilance in safeguarding free speech, blind to party, philosophy, ideology, or belief.
The Civil Rights Division is resolutely committed to upholding the First Amendment’s first freedoms in our university and college communities. Our goal is to ensure that all college students remain free to participate in the robust and open exchange of ideas at the bedrock of our Constitutional system. The Division’s tools to pursue this goal are powerful but limited. Congress has authorized us to file statements of interest in court, but only in lawsuits filed by some other party. To date, we have filed statements of interest in four cases challenging unconstitutional campus speech codes. We remain on the lookout for more meritorious and appropriate cases and ask you to bring those cases to us if you have them.
Some may be skeptical of the Division’s motives or the cases in which we have gotten involved. To you I say: the simple brilliance of the First Amendment is its unyielding universality. Whenever the First Amendment protects speech of any ideology, it protects the speech of all ideologies. It is no less repugnant to the First Amendment when a junior college in Joliet, Illinois tells a socialist student that she cannot distribute anti-capitalist flyers than it is when a community college in Los Angeles, California tells a libertarian student that he cannot distribute pocket Constitutions. We filed a statement in the Los Angeles case opposing the college’s motion to dismiss. The Joliet case, however, was settled by the parties before our opportunity to file a statement arose.
We in the Civil Rights Division are proud to stand on the side of the First Amendment on behalf of students, faculty, staff, groups, and anyone else whose speech has been stifled, stymied, sanctioned, or suppressed by unconstitutional campus speech codes. Together we can restore the tradition of free and elevated discourse on campus and make our university and college communities more free, more fair, more open, more equal, and more just.
We at the Department of Justice are honored to be led in these efforts by an exemplary and esteemed public servant. Throughout his career, Attorney General Sessions has fought to uphold the First Amendment’s first freedoms on behalf of all Americans. He has led the Department with uncompromising principle and undaunted integrity. Please join me in welcoming the 84th Attorney General of the United States, the Honorable Jeff Sessions.