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Students holding rainbow flag walk out in protest at Sessions’ Amherst event

Protesters gathered outside the Johnson Chapel at Amherst College during a visit to the school by Jeff Sessions.
Protesters gathered outside the Johnson Chapel at Amherst College during a visit to the school by Jeff Sessions.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

AMHERST — Former attorney general Jeff Sessions told an audience at Amherst College Wednesday night that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was conducted “with integrity” and that the country should accept the results and move on.

Sessions, who was fired by President Trump in November, said the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election was carried out “vigorously and with integrity.”

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

The former attorney general, whose appearance at the elite school was met with a walk-out and protests, spent much of his 30-minute speech criticizing liberal college students who, he said, have gone overboard in their political correctness and drown out the voices of conservative students.

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Jeff Sessions, in a photo taken Oct. 15, 2018.
Jeff Sessions, in a photo taken Oct. 15, 2018.(AP)

“There is a big problem nationwide, in my opinion, of excessive leftist aggressive thoughts on campus and not enough balance,” he said.

Sessions encouraged conservative students to make their views heard and criticized Amherst for not having any conservative professors.

“Too often the school is favoring the heckler’s disruption tactics over the speaker’s First Amendment rights,” he said.

His speech came after a tumultuous semester at Amherst that forced students and the administration at the college to confront the boundaries of free speech and political correctness. Given the context of the speech, his remarks seemed all the more relevant.

The event was organized by the Amherst College Republicans in conjunction with Young America’s Foundation, a national conservative youth organization.

Ahead of the speech, Amherst president Biddy Martin told the school in an e-mail that the college, somewhat reluctantly, would welcome Sessions to campus.

“I believe we owe it to ourselves, despite cynical efforts to put us in a defensive posture, to protect the right to expression, even or especially when it hurts to do so, as long as there is no imminent threat of violence or incitement to it,” she wrote last week in an e-mail.

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Several times Sessions mentioned a speech he gave recently at the University of Minnesota, where, he said, students stood up every few minutes to interrupt him.

“It cannot be that one can say ‘your words offend me, your words hurt my feelings, therefore you must shut up, you can’t talk,’ ” Sessions said.

The Amherst students who walked out of the speech did so quietly, carrying a rainbow flag, a gay rights symbol. Outside, they gathered in protest, and their chants could be heard inside Johnson Chapel, where the speech took place.

Sessions encouraged conservative students to keep making their views heard and to push back in environments that favor liberal points of view. “Sharp debate is a healthy thing. Truth usually wins out,” he said.

During a question-and-answer period with students, Sessions was asked why he believes Trump was elected. Sessions said it was because wages have not kept up with the cost of living in the United States and too many people live in poverty.

Those people felt forgotten by mainstream politicians, he said, but felt that Trump cared about them.

Sessions served as a Republican senator from Alabama from 1997 until February 2017, when Trump appointed him attorney general. He resigned at the president’s request in November 2018 after months of public animosity from Trump over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation.

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Sessions is known for dismantling Obama-era policies on immigration, police reform, and civil rights. He was a key player in the Trump administration’s multifaceted crackdown on immigrants that has continued even since he stepped down.

The scene at Amherst College on Wednesday night.
The scene at Amherst College on Wednesday night.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

The Sessions visit capped a fraught semester at Amherst College, where students and the president have struggled over how to allow free speech while at the same time fostering a community of respect and tolerance.

Last month, the school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion released a “Common Language Guide” that sparked outrage because it sought to define controversial terms such as “white savior complex” and “fragile masculinity” as well as various terms having to do with sexual identity.

It defined capitalism as a system that “leads to exploitative labor practices, which affect marginalized groups disproportionately.”

Shortly after, several members of the Amherst College Republicans were caught using discriminatory language about transgender people in a smartphone group chat in which they were discussing the Common Language Guide.

Before those two events, the men’s lacrosse team had been accused of anti-Semitic behavior after someone posted a photo online of a swastika drawn on the face of an unconscious student at a lacrosse party in December.

Two weeks ago, the college president issued a long letter to the community addressing all three incidents, specifically and as a whole.

“The Amherst community is capable of negotiating the tensions that arise between rights to freedom of expression, on the one hand, and respect for persons and values on the other,” she wrote.

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She called for a “halt to the pitched conflict that can only do more harm.”

The controversial language guide was retracted by the school almost immediately. While there is a need, Martin said, for better understanding of marginalized groups, she said she had not seen the guide before it was published.

She condemned the insults made by the members of the Republican club, saying they were harmful not only to the intended targets but, once public, to the entire school.

“I wish they understood that saying something in private does not release a person from the demands of simple decency,” Martin wrote.

At the same time, Martin said the Republicans on campus probably feel marginalized, too, and she criticized the student government for coming down too harshly on the club with punishments.

“Too often these [Republican] individuals are not afforded legitimacy or inclusion by those on the left who reduce members to an objectionable stereotype,” Martin wrote.

“These students, too, deserve to feel welcome and be known for who they are as people and as individuals with conservative perspectives.”

Martin did not attend the talk.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.