Sarah Flores spoke at the White House’s Generation Next forum for millennials Thursday. As director of the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs, she spoke about free speech on colleges campuses and the opioid crisis. The Daily Signal’s Kelsey Harkness and The Federalist’s Bre Payton also asked her about being a “problematic woman.” An edited transcript of the interview is below.
Kelsey Harkness: We’re coming to you from the White House. There’s an event happening that’s focusing on millennials, so I wanted to start out this interview by asking about a recent action the Justice Department took on behalf of millennials on college campuses relating to free speech. Take it away.
Sarah Flores: We have this crisis across the country that’s just not getting the coverage that it should, frankly, and I’m so glad that you are talking about it, and obviously incredibly grateful to the president for hosting this event today, because I think it is so important.
I think if we were in college right now, we would be having a very different experience, or at least I know I would, because I spoke my mind in college. Right now, you can get expelled for that; you can get shut down for that.
What the Justice Department has done is tried to find those most egregious cases and filed what we call a statement of interest. But think of it as an amicus brief or a friend of the plaintiff, or defendant in some cases, to show that the federal government has an interest in protecting free speech on these college campuses.
The most recent one that’s certainly been a famous school for doing this is Berkeley. In that case, if you want to bring a speaker to campus, you’re the head of College Republicans, and you want to bring a speaker that they deem might be controversial on campus, well, you can’t have it at certain hours, you can’t have it at certain places.
What that means is, if the school thinks that you have a different viewpoint, they can really shut down your speech based on a hecklers’ veto idea. Which is really terrifying, because what’s the point of college if you can’t explore new ideas and challenge your viewpoint that you came to college with?
So, we feel pretty strongly about it. We filed in at least three of these cases. In another one, a student was handing out the U.S. Constitution and the school said he didn’t have a permit to do that, so he can’t hand out the Constitution.
Harkness: Now, are these all public schools that you’re engaging in? Are you engaging with private schools on this issue?
Flores: We have filed in public school cases, but obviously private schools accept a lot of federal dollars as well. I don’t think you’ve seen the end of this issue for public or private schools.
Bre Payton: Yeah, certainly. And with the ongoing opioid crisis that is overtaking the country now, more people are dying of opioids than of breast cancer. What are some of the additional steps that the Department of Justice has been taking under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to combat what’s going on?
Flores: Well, part of the reason I’m here today and you don’t get Jeff Sessions is because he’s actually in Tallahassee right now talking about opioids. Tomorrow, he’s visiting a neonatal unit in Birmingham, Alabama, to visit babies who were born addicted to opioids. The statistics on this are incredibly heartbreaking and they’re growing. The president has told us to take a lead on this as an administration and to end this crisis.
One thing that I think your viewers in particular would be interested in is we have a team called the J-CODE team, which I like the name, because it sounds cool. It sounds like we could have a sitcom on it. The J-CODE team, though, specifically targets online darknet elicit fentanyl-type websites that are selling these.
We had a 13-year-old boy die in Utah recently because the drugs that were ordered online, I know, shockingly, weren’t what they said they were. They had fentanyl in them; he overdosed and died. I think it’s really hard to imagine what those parents must have gone through. Did you even know you could order fentanyl on the internet?
Harkness: I didn’t know you could order drugs online. News to me.
Flores: We had two … actually, a prosecution today. One in San Diego, another in Ohio. The Ohio one I think will just blow your mind.
They arrested someone with three pounds of fentanyl and charged them with this. Three pounds of fentanyl is enough to kill everyone in the city of Toledo several times over. That is how powerful this stuff is, so what the president’s message has been is, “Don’t start.”
There’s rehab, and there’s treatment, and there’s all these things that are so important, but the best way to not get addicted and to not end up as one of these statistics: Don’t start.
Payton: I guess he’s taking that example, too, right? Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do anything. Just not going to risk it. Speaking of the dark web, you and I were talking a little bit earlier about just human trafficking issues. What are some steps that the Department of Justice is doing or what’s a message that the DOJ would like to send to Americans about this issue?
Flores: Well, we have a lot of resources dedicated to human trafficking. It’s one of those issues that really lives below the surface; it’s not something that I think a lot of people see every day as they drive around, but it is every day.
The Super Bowl is probably the No. 1 day for human trafficking in the country. We have this huge sports event and everyone’s watching the Super Bowl and what you’re not seeing is what’s happening behind the scenes. I think it can be a silent crisis. The thing that I would say to you guys and to your viewers when it comes to human trafficking: It is a see something, say something problem. If you think something doesn’t look right—people who are being trafficked don’t wear T-shirts that say, “I am a human trafficking victim”—it’s up to us to all ask questions.
These girls can be young. MS-13, a gang that the president has talked a lot about, they traffic girls as young as 12-years-old. They’re in your junior high school, they’re in your high school. It’s up to all of us to ask questions and raise alarm bells, because while law enforcement does an incredibly impressive job with this, they can’t be everywhere the way that we all can.
Harkness: It seems like, so often, people are looking to the government for the solutions. But on this case, you’re saying the most important thing that members of your local communities is to really be aware that human trafficking is happening and then keep our eyes out for it. We appreciate that message and we will do our part to spread it.
I want to ask, in spirit of our podcast, “Problematic Women,” first off: Is that something you would perhaps identify with? Do you view yourself as, at times, problematic? What was it like coming in to the Justice Department? What’s your experience been like?
Flores: I think other people will have described me as a problematic woman throughout my career. I hope they have, actually. I think that means you’re probably doing something right along the way. So, love being with you; I think that’s really fun.
I came from a campaign background. Political background. Campaigns are startups; it’s why I always tell young people, particularly college-age folks, “Try a campaign.” Just go do it for a summer for a couple months. If you find it addictive and love it, great. If you don’t, you had a cool time in random state whatever.
So, you go from this really startup mentality to … the Department of Justice. It has 115,000 employees, and it does important work. Every day you feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s reducing crime, or fighting the opioid epidemic, or protecting the border, national security. There’s so much cool, important stuff we do every day.
But, yes, 115,000 people is a large number of people to move into categories, but the most fun part of my job every day is working with Jeff Sessions, who is so much fun. He is really funny behind the scenes. I think he’s pretty funny on camera, too. Last week we watched one of the SNL skits about him and he died laughing.
There’s little moments that you’re going to remember when you’re in these jobs and take with you. Those are the really good days and days you’re really excited to be in this job, even if it’s not quite the startup mentality that you’re used to.
Payton: Something we always like to ask guests, too, is we talk about feminism and what feminism means to you. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Or is that label a little bit troublesome? What do you think about all that?
Flores: That’s tough, because I feel like, as conservative women, of course. I feel like it goes without saying; of course we believe that women should have the same opportunities as men.
Payton: Exactly, right.
Flores: Then it’s just a question of, “Do you wanna take back the term feminist so that that is what it’s supposed to mean?” In that sense, yeah, I’m a feminist.
But that’s not what we use it as in our society anymore. It has been so hijacked. So, I don’t know if I’m on team take back the word or team define your own word. I know what I am and I think I know what we are, and I know what conservative women are. I don’t think we’ve ever been particularly bothered by labels or we probably wouldn’t be here in the first place.