Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick to be United States attorney general, launched a public campaign as Alabama attorney general in 1996 to prevent a gay rights group from holding a conference at the University of Alabama, according to a CNN KFile review of contemporaneous press accounts and legal filings.
Sessions’s record in public office is coming under increased scrutiny now that he has been selected as Trump’s attorney general. He has been a staunch opponent of the LGBT rights movement. He dubbed the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage an “effort to secularize, by force and intimidation.” And in 2000 and 2009 he voted against measures expanding hate crime legislation to include sexual orientation.
He’s also co-sponsor, along with other prominent Republicans, of The First Amendment Defense Act, a bill opponents have dubbed “a right to discriminate.” President-elect Donald Trump has vowed he’d sign the measure.
As Alabama’s attorney general in 1996, Sessions attempted to stop the Southeastern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual College Conference from meeting at the University of Alabama under a state law passed in 1992 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 stated mission of the Southeastern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual College Conference was to educate and start a dialogue about the LGBT community. Scheduled events at the conference included a workshop on coming out, an interfaith panel of LGBT issues, a discussion on preventing STDs, and discussions on the Internet and substance abuse.
Fob James, the Republican governor of Alabama, said he believed the conference violated the 1992 law. Sessions agreed, though initially said he wouldn’t take legal action to intervene. A spokeswoman for Sessions told the Birmingham News that the law was “fuzzy” on such events, and it would be hard to take legal action to stop the conference.
“This is a matter that the university and board of trustees need to deal with,” Sessions was quoted as saying by the Mobile Register. Still, Sessions opinion was clear. “University officials say they’re going to try to obey the law,” Sessions was quoted as saying. “I don’t see how it can be done without canceling this conference.”
A spokesperson for Sessions declined to comment for this story.
Sessions wrote a letter to University President Roger Sayers giving his opinion the conference violated state law and asking that it be cancelled.
“I remain hopeful that if the administration does not act, the board of trustees will,” Sessions stated, adding there were limits on restricting free speech on college campuses and that taxpayers should not have to pay for the conference.
University officials saw the conference as a First Amendment issue, and fought for it to go forward.
“We are reviewing the attorney general’s letter,” Culpepper Clark, an aide to the school president was quoted as saying at the time by the Mobile Register. “We will consider his recommendation. As the attorney general knows and is clear and well established in law, the university has a duty to err on the side of the First Amendment.'”
Sessions then stepped up his efforts.
At a news conference reported by multiple news outlets at the time, he said he might try to get a court order to stop the conference. Several days later, a federal judge struck down Alabama’s 1992 law as unconstitutional.
US District Judge Myron Thompson, in his opinion striking down the law, wrote that it 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.”
Sessions vowed to appeal, and told reporters he would even seek an injunction to stop the conference.
“I intend to do everything I can to stop that conference,” Sessions said, according to the Huntsville Times. “The Legislature gave serious thought to trying to craft a statute that passed muster,” Sessions added. “And I believe that my responsibility is to defend the laws of the Legislature.”
As the fight over the conference made national press, interest and opposition in it swelled.
Sessions’ attempts to block the conference, however, would come up short. On the Tuesday before the weekend conference was set to begin, Judge Thompson reiterated his opinion that the conference could not be stopped.
In response, Sessions argued before Thompson that he sought the ability to monitor the conference for violations of the law, not to stop it.
“The State of Alabama will experience irreparable harm by funding a conference and activities in violation of state law,” Sessions argued. His request for a stay on the ruling was denied.
In a press conference after the ruling, Sessions said they would look at further options, if possible, but options were limited.
“We feel like the Alabama statute needs to defended and we do plan to appeal Judge Thompson’s ruling,” Sessions. “We’ve got to make a decision about what we’ll do about the actual conference. Judge Thompson’s ruling said that on its face the Alabama statute is unconstitutional and indicated that any attempt to enforce it he would stop and so we’ve got evaluate whether or not there’s anything we do can with the university at this point.”
“We have done everything we can,” a Sessions spokesperson later told the Birmingham News.
The event began that Friday to little protest. The conference’s attendance, however, was said to have increased.
“It was probably better attended than it would have been. So, in some ways what they did backfired,” said Cathy Lopez Wessel, a conference organizer told CNN.
Still, she said she had been caught off guard at the resistance. “What really struck me was that this seemed clearly to be about free speech and peaceable assembly. I feel like Jeff Sessions used the full power of his office position to deny a student group the right to have a conference.”
Sessions would go on to successfully run for the U.S. Senate that year.
Later attempts to appeal the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals failed. A three-judge panel on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would affirm the 1996 decision. The state ultimately decided to not appeal that ruling.