Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stressed the importance of free speech during a campus visit Monday evening amid interruptions from protesters.
At the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Sessions’ speech was met with backlash from protesters as he spoke about immigration policies and his time in the White House as a former member of the Trump Administration.
Sessions resigned at President Donald Trump’s request last November after controversy surrounding the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. A redacted version of the special counsel's report is expected to be released on Thursday.
"People in this day protest with absolute certainty things that are fundamentally wrong. In this United States of America, we have a generous immigration policy — we let 1.1 million people have permanent legal residence in the United States," Sessions said responding to protesters’ statements criticizing his policies. "This country cannot accept everybody in the world."
Four student groups — Minnesota Students for Liberty, Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, Minnesota Republic and Students for a Conservative Voice — invited Sessions to the University's campus to “host a range of political voices,” said Minnesota Republic spokesperson Tiana Meador.
Although around 200 people registered for the event, Meador said the audience amounted to about 75 in the 300-seat auditorium.
"A lot of buzz is surrounding Sessions, as he was kind of an excommunicated member of the Trump administration," said Sam Bevacco, a junior at the event. "I'm interested in his insights on the White House."
Students and protesters met Sessions with backlash both inside and outside of the auditorium.
Before Sessions' arrival, protesters from student group Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Minnesota gathered outside the auditorium, bearing signs primarily protesting recent federal family separation policies. Others showed support for U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., amid recent criticism.
"We want to show that we don't support his largely xenophobic and anti-immigrant agenda. We don't tolerate these policies at the U," said sophomore Eric Dorland, one of the lead protestors. "We also want to show we are in solidarity with those affected by [Sessions’] policies."
Shortly after Sessions' introduction, protesters began individually reading scripted speeches.
A cluster of about five protesters held up signs at the end of Sessions’ speech, which included messages such as "Jesus was an immigrant" and "Children of immigrants."
"People die at the border because of your policies," one protester shouted. "How do you sleep at night?"
Sessions said the University should welcome speakers like himself and conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, who visited the St. Paul campus last year.
"[There’s] no better time to defend speech than when it's under attack," Sessions said.
About 20 University of Minnesota Police Department officers lined the auditorium and escorted all protesters out. UMPD Lieutenant Chuck Miner said the department was prepared for this event.
Sessions fielded questions from the audience after his speech, including a question about the Mueller report as further release of the investigation looms.
"Fundamentally, [current Attorney General William Barr] said he'd reveal what he could, and I believe you can count on it," Sessions said.