Metro Weekly

Jeff Sessions tried to ban LGBT conference from University of Alabama campus

Former Alabama AG tried to stop conference using Alabama's sodomy laws in election year stunt

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions - Photo: Gage Skidmore.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions – Photo: Gage Skidmore.

It appears Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. Attorney General, was not a fan of the First Amendment during his time as Alabama’s Attorney General.

According to CNN, Sessions once tried to ban an LGBT conference from the University of Alabama campus by utilizing a 1992 state law that made it illegal for public universities to fund in any way a group that promotes “actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws.”

The conference targeted by Sessions was the Southeastern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual College Conference, which had been scheduled to meet at the University of Alabama in order to “start a dialogue” about LGBT issues. Scheduled events included a workshop on coming out, an interfaith panel examining LGBT issues, and discussion about preventing STDs, the Internet and substance abuse.

Fob James, Alabama’s Republican governor at the time, said he believed the conference violated the 1992 law. Sessions, who was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, agreed but did not initially take action, saying it would be difficult to stop the conference via legal means. Sessions wrote to the University President Roger Sayers and urged him to cancel the conference, and issued a statement calling on the board of trustees to cancel it should Sayers and university administrators refuse to act.

Even though the university acknowledged that the conference violated state law, it refused to cancel the event, citing the First Amendment as a defense. Sessions then vowed to get a court order to stop the conference. But several days later, a federal judge struck down that exact same law as unconstitutional.

That judge, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, wrote that the 1992 law was “an open effort by the State Legislature to limit the sexuality discussion in institutions of higher learning to only one viewpoint: that of heterosexual people. This viewpoint limitation violates the first amendment.”

Enraged, Sessions vowed to appeal and told reporters he would seek an injunction to stop the conference, saying he felt it was his duty to defend laws passed by the state legislature. Sessions went to court and argued before Thompson that he was no longer pushing to stop the conference, but monitor its various workshops and activities for violations of the law. He asked Thompson to stay his own ruling while he promised to mount an appeal. But Thompson refused to stay the ruling, allowing the conference to go forward.

Conference organizers later said that, ironically, Sessions’ very public fight against the event backfired, drawing more attendees than had been expected. But some were perturbed at Sessions’ seemingly rabid opposition to fundamental First Amendment principles.

“What really struck me was that this seemed clearly to be about free speech and peaceable assembly,” said Cathy Lopez Wessel, one of the conference’s organizers. “I feel like Jeff Sessions used the full power of his office position to deny a student group the right to have a conference.”

As for Sessions, he was successfully elected to the U.S. Senate later that year. The state of Alabama later attempted to appeal the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the right of the university to hold the conference. Sessions’ successor, Attorney General Bill Pryor — now a sitting judge on the 11th Circuit who is rumored to be among President-elect Trump’s top picks for a Supreme Court seat — decided not to appeal that ruling.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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