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Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem were making "a big mistake" and that President Donald Trump had every right to call them out.
“I agree that it’s a big mistake to protest in that fashion,” Sessions said during a lecture about the importance of free speech on college campuses at the Georgetown University Law Center, adding that the players' action "weakens the commitment we have to the nation that has provided us this freedom."
Sessions also strongly defended the president for speaking out on the issue.
"The president has free speech rights, too," Sessions said. "He sends soldiers out every day to defend this country under the flag of the United States."
Sessions also noted that the right to protest by kneeling was protected under the Constitution, adding that "they aren’t subject to any prosecution."
"The freedom of every individual player is paramount under the Constitution. It's protected. And we have to protect it," Sessions said. "People have a right to register their opinions, to protest, to citizens in any number of ways."
He added, "In this great land, the government does not get to tell you what to think or what to say."
The attorney general noted that "protecting free speech doesn't mean condoning violence … like we saw in Charlottesville."
Before the speech, dozens of faculty members and students at Georgetown Law protested, some by taking a knee on the steps of a nearby building.
The gesture was in solidarity with many NFL players who protested during last weekend’s games after a fiery declaration on Friday from Trump, who called those who kneel in protest "sons of bitches" and tweeted that players who don't stand during the anthem should be "fired."