(Reuters) — U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III on Tuesday denounced football players who have protested racism by kneeling or locking arms during the playing of the national anthem before games, saying that even though their speech is protected, they should be condemned for showing disrespect to the country.
Speaking to an audience at Georgetown Law School, Sessions said athletes who chose to protest during the national anthem were making a “big mistake” with an action that “weakens the commitment we have to this nation.”
Sessions was at Georgetown to deliver an address about free speech on college campuses. Earlier, President Donald Trump called on the National Football League to ban players from kneeling in protest while the anthem is played.
“The players aren’t subject to any prosecution, but if they take a provocative act, they can expect to be condemned, and the president has the right to condemn them, and I would condemn their actions,” he said.
Sessions is the latest member of the Trump administration to jump into the fray over national anthem protests by NFL teams.
Trump has been fueling debate on the issue since Friday, when he spoke at a rally and said that any protesting player was a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired.”
He has since kept up the pressure through a series of Twitter messages. But his comments have touched off a series of protests by NFL players, coaches and some owners at football games.
The comments may play well with Trump’s conservative base at a time when the Republican president is grappling with North Korea’s nuclear threats, a humanitarian crisis in hurricane-struck Puerto Rico, an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and a healthcare struggle in Congress.
Sessions made his remarks about the NFL protests following a speech he gave on free speech, in which he said the Justice Department is going to start taking greater steps to protect the rights of speakers on college campuses whom he fears are being censored by student protesters.
When asked during a question and answer session afterwards if he was concerned that President Trump was condemning players for exercising their free speech rights, Sessions said that “the president has free speech rights too.”
Meanwhile, students and faculty at Georgetown gathered to protest that Sessions was delivering his address about the right of free speech on college campuses to an invitation-only audience without giving critics of the Trump administration an opportunity to ask questions.
Several dozen protesters stood on the front steps of the school, some with duct tape over their mouths to symbolize that they felt their views were censored from the event. Some held signs denouncing racism, censorship and Trump’s decision to rescind “DACA,” the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that shields immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Taking turns with a bullhorn, students and some faculty members accused the school of shutting them out from attending the speech and asking questions.
One protester, third-year law student Charlotte Berschback, complained on the sidelines of theprotest that invitations to the Sessions speech had been withdrawn from students who had RSVPed and had initially been told they would have a seat.
“We pay a ton of tuition,” she said. “We should have a role in deciding who comes to our school.” She added that liberal students had been excluded from attending the Sessions event and that the school should have used a lottery process to let students attend.