Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended his boss's criticism of NFL players for kneeling in protest during the national anthem, saying Tuesday that President Trump has "free speech rights, too."
Sessions defended Trump's controversial remarks as he criticized college speech policies during an address at the Georgetown University Law Center. "Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack," he said.
"In this great land," Sessions also said, "the government does not get to tell you what to think or what to say."
But in a question-and-answer session, Session said that he agrees with Trump and that "it's a big mistake" for NFL players to protest police brutality against African-Americans by kneeling during the national anthem.
Sessions said there are many ways "these players, with all the assets that they have, can express their political views other than, in effect, denigrating the symbols of our nation," which, he said, has provided them "freedom to speak and to act."
Sessions went on to say the freedom of every individual player is "paramount under the Constitution, is protected and we have to protect it." He then added, "it's not a contradiction."
More than 100 students and faculty members protested Sessions' speech, saying they were not allowed in to hear it, despite there being empty seats.
Lauren Phillips, a second-year student and one of the organizers of the protest, said, "It's incredibly ironic that the attorney general wants to come here to talk about free speech but is excluding dissenting voices and potentially dissenting questions from his speech."
Citing incidents at schools from Boise State to Middlebury College, Sessions said American universities are "transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."
Sessions announced that the Justice Department "will enforce federal law, defend free speech and protect students' free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come."
As he was speaking, the DOJ said it was filing a "statement of interest" in a case filed by students at Georgia Gwinnett College to challenge a school policy that the department says limits student expressive activity to two small free speech zones, that totaled 0.0015 percent of the campus and requires students to obtain prior authorization from campus officials, as well as to comply with the student code of conduct that prohibited speech that "disturbs the comfort" of others.
Sessions said DOJ would file more such statements in the weeks and months to come.