Of all the ways Donald Trump has inflicted public humiliation upon his Attorney General, the most darkly amusing may be his decision to launch a high-profile campaign to censor professional athletes on the eve of Sessions’s speech purporting to defend free speech. The theme of Sessions’s address is that universities have become an “echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” The charge is not altogether false, but Sessions would have at least some chance to maintain his dignity if not for his boss’s decision to publicly and repeatedly demand the firing of professional athletes who offend his own fragile ego.
Even before this week, Sessions – or any representative of Trump’s administration – could not possibly make a consistent case for the value of free speech. It is not merely that Trump lacks any convincing passion for the issue. He has devoted his life to the use of power to quash expressions of speech he disapproves of. Trump sued reporter Tim O’Brien for accurately reporting on his inflated claims of wealth. He sued architecture critic George Gapp for criticizing the aesthetic of a proposed Trump building. He and his organization have done this thousands of times.
Trump’s celebrity career was devoted to the idea that his wealth could be leveraged to quash inconvenient reporting and commentary from newspaper and magazines that had fewer resources to fight legal battles, however preposterous the merits of Trump’s claim.
Far from discarding this practice, Trump has made it a lodestar of his political career. He has declared the mainstream news media “the enemy of the American people” and worked assiduously behind the scenes to lock down the support of the quasi-state media at Fox News. He has repeatedly threatened to revise libel laws so that the threats he used so effectively in business could become even more effective. (“We’re going to open up those libels laws, so that when the New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money.”)
In his speech at Georgetown Law School today, Sessions rattled off a familiar litany of pro-free-speech pieties. Democracy is best served by the open expression of dissent and disagreement so that reason may prevail, and so on. These are all perfectly admirable values, and Sessions’s targets are not undeserving. The tension in the address arose from the obvious reality that Sessions serves an administration that can barely pretend to uphold them.
Trump does not believe instinctively in free speech any more than he believes in any abstract ideal.
His test of any issue is whether it serves his personal interests. Trump has publicly endorsed punishment for protesters who burn an American flag (“perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”), and his demands for the firing of kneeling athletes follows from that belief.
Sessions steered clear of the obvious contradiction in his prepared remarks. He took a few written questions, one of which noted the obvious NFL hypocrisy. The Attorney General gamely defended his boss. “The president has free-speech rights too,” he insisted, before explaining that the NFL would not actually prosecute protesters. They would only be fired!
Of course, the same defense could also be made of the private colleges he lambasted. They’re not jailing anybody for offensive speech. Just cancelling or shouting down speeches by unpopular figures, or potentially expelling students for violating vaguely drawn speech codes. The difference is that Sessions believes professional athletes should be conscripted into rituals of militarized patriotism that imbue their owners with a patriotic gloss, but that college students must enjoy unfettered expression.
The second part of the formulation is correct, but that does not make Sessions even half right. He and Trump are 100 percent consistent in their unprincipled belief that speech should be heavily regulated by institutions they agree with, and unregulated by those they don’t.