Jeff Sessions’ visit sparks controversy, incites protests


Photo courtesy of Illini Republicans

Former general attorney, Jeff Sessions, speaks in Gregory Hall on Tuesday. Sessions was invited by the Illini Republicans, and his visit brings in disputes.

By Shreya Rathi, Staff Writer

As former Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped up to the podium in Gregory Hall room 112, a sea of protestors silently stood up and walked out of the room. The only sounds were the disapproving words of the still-seated audience members and the chants that began to fill the halls.  

On Tuesday night, Sessions visited the University to speak on current and past political issues. The effort was part of a partnership between the Illini Republicans – a conservative RSO on campus – and the Young America’s Foundation, a nationwide organization that seeks to provide students with access to conservative speakers and conferences. 

A number of students at the university opposed Sessions’ visit — the two most prominent groups being the Illinois Student Government and the Young Democratic Socialists of America. Opposers said they felt uncomfortable having such a controversial politician speak on campus and called for the event to be hosted off-campus instead. 

Niko Johnson-Fuller, sophomore in LAS and co-chair of the YDSA, was one of the student protesters that walked out of the auditorium. He said he disapproved of Sessions’ visit because of Sessions’ history of making controversial comments.  

“The University has a duty to promote progressive values, and Jeff Sessions is not only not progressive, but he’s a racist bigot and homophobic bigot,” he said. “There’s no reason to allow him to speak on campus.”

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Johnson-Fuller also said that by allowing Sessions to visit, it showed the University does not truly stand behind their stated values.  

“It’s further showing that the University doesn’t really stand for a lot of the things they say they do,” he said. “I know equality and inclusion and diversity inclusion are a lot of the things (the) University brands itself with, but they let a racist bigot talk in a prominent position on campus. That’s pretty messed up.”

ISG strongly disapproved of Sessions’ visit and proposed a resolution, “Safe Campus,” to officially condemn his presence. When the resolution was brought to the Senate floor, it passed 21-5-1. Among those who voted yes was Shifra Ferziger,  junior in ACES and ISG senator. 

“This should not be a partisan issue,” Ferziger said. “It’s universal that we want to respect each other. And Jeff Sessions does not have a history of that universal respect. And the issue is not his political views, but his lack of respect for other people. And that, and the fact that it was Black History Month, in my opinion, was an insult to injury.” 

Ferziger also addressed the issue of freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech is definitely important, but it’s also important that people feel safe on campus,” Ferziger said. 

On the flip side, conservative students said the event was an important tool for uplifting and empowering conservative voices on campus. They employed preventive measures in order to keep the event going by denying entry to protesters holding anti-Sessions signs.

Regarding ISG’s condemnation, the Illini Republicans further defended their position and responded on their Instagram account. Their official statement called ISG’s actions despicable and unsubstantiated, and they said ISG did not support the diversity of thought on campus.

Nikki Adolph, sophomore in ACES, said she was happy to finally have a conservative speaker on campus.

“Conservative voices are the minority here, and it was really nice to have a conservative speaker on campus, especially after four years of not having one,” she said “It’s a huge stepping stone for the group and for all conservatives on campus to have such a renowned speaker and politician just on campus.”

Kara Zupkus, a YAF spokeswoman who helped organize Sessions’ speech at the University, also agreed that conservative voices seem to be largely absent from university discourse.

“It’s important to have a dialogue, especially on a big public campus, like the University of Illinois,” Zupkus said. “It’s especially important to Young America’s Foundation to be the group bringing (conservative) perspectives because, without our group, these students wouldn’t be hearing that voice.”  

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