College Students Suing Over Free Speech Get a Powerful Ally: The Trump Administration

The Trump administration is using its legal muscle to aid college students who say their free-speech rights have been violated on campus, diving into a politically charged battle over whether school discipline and safety policies are hindering expression.

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has decried colleges for becoming an “echo chamber of political correctness,” the Justice Department has been inserting itself into lawsuits on behalf of students who say their views are silenced when administrators restrict where they can protest or who can speak on campus.

In recent months, the Justice Department has sided with conservative student groups suing the University of California, Berkeley over the school’s policies regarding guest speakers, and with a student who sued Pierce College in Los Angeles over its restrictions on where he could distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution. This week, the Justice Department aligned itself with a group in a lawsuit against the University of Michigan over its conduct code.

The effort reflects an assertive role the Trump administration has taken in promoting conservative social priorities across agencies, transforming policy on sensitive issues such as immigration, reproductive health, gay rights and religious freedom. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, created a new division in its Office for Civil Rights to field complaints of religious discrimination in health care. The Education Department rolled back Obama-era policies on campus sexual assault and transgender bathroom access.

Trump critics say the administration is aggressively seeking out divisive issues to curry favor with its conservative and religious base. But administration officials argue they are intervening to protect rights of individuals whose concerns have long been ignored, noting that Obama officials made similar moves to further their own, left-leaning positions.

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