Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. Chief Justice John Roberts, Snyder v. Phelps
Recently, a photograph of what appears to be a group of about 60 white male high school students holding up a Nazi salute went viral. The boys are seen smiling with their right arms extended in the air, resembling the Sieg Heil salute.
Though the superintendent of the school, Lori Mueller, condemned the photograph, she also said the district isnt in a position to punish the students because they are protected by the First Amendment. Mueller stated that officials cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those involved.
In 2017, black 17-year-old student India Landry was expelled from Windfern High School in Houston when her principal discovered Landry refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, later telling Landrys mother, She cant come to my school if she wont stand for the pledge.
Landry and her mother filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that Texas law protects her right to abstain from standing during the pledge.
Imagine if it had been India Landry who raised her arm high and proud in the name of Nazism instead of the group of white boys. Would she have received the same outcome as they did? Would she have been just as protected?
The fact is this: We live in a world where schools are able to cite free speech when kids praise Nazism, but threaten punishment when kids condemn racism. Freedom of speech shouldnt be selective, but Americans treat it like it is.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernicks peaceful protests have become fairly well known since he first took a knee. His display was the start of a vast social movement along the sidelines, generated by President Trumps calls on coaches to fire players who decline to stand during the national anthem.
The NFL players demonstrations during the national anthem inspired student athletes to recreate the display. To no surprise, this was followed by a number of schools telling students they were expected to stand during the national anthem. Schools threatened serious disciplinary action to students who knelt during the anthem before sporting events, including loss of playing time and participation as well as removal from the team altogether.
These school administrators dont seem to grasp the very thing they are supposed to be teaching their students the right to protest peacefully.
Heres where the issue of race comes into play. No matter who is doing the demonstrating, they are all doing it for the same reason: to protest racial injustice and discrimination. Those in authority who wish punishment on these demonstrators seem to be blatantly disregarding that fact. Often times, those in opposition to the protests choose to believe the protestors are demonstrating in order to show disrespect to veterans. These people are letting emotion trump reason.
That ignorance, once again, stems from our own president.
Soon after the NFL demonstrations began, just as he has with countless other issues, Trump chose to turn it into a national controversy. Calling the protests a total disrespect for everything we stand for he called on NFL owners to fire the players who kneel during the anthem and encouraged fans to stop attending games as punishment for the owners who fail to comply.
As usual, Trump is preaching the wrong message about First Amendment values.
This nation was born of dissent. In the words of Gene Policinski of Newseum, it has a long history in which public protest both echoed public sentiment or brought marginalized views into the mainstream consciousness, from Colonial-era protests over taxes to the long battle over slavery and segregation, to womens suffrage and dozens of other major issues. Even before they were written into our Constitution, the First Amendment rights of free speech, press, assembly and petition have been the engines of social change.
In the 1940 case Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Supreme Court upheld a law requiring students in public schools to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance even those with religious objections.
Just three years later, after an outbreak of violent incidents in which those in authority tried to force others to salute the flag, that decision was overturned. Justice Robert H. Jackson observed that a Bill of Rights which guards the individuals right to speak his own mind left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind.
In other words, if our right to speak our mind is protected, we ought to have that same protection over not speaking our mind. It is perfectly natural even encouraged for a president to stand up for our national symbols. But we should have a president who accepts and allows a persons right to peacefully protest, rather than one who demands that person lose their job and encourages others to punish them.
When a group of 60 white male high school students posed for a photograph, they did something that offended a lot of people, and they were protected from punishment because of the First Amendment.
When NFL players kneeled during the national anthem, they also did something that offended a lot of people (including our infantile president).
Freedom of speech isnt a one-way street. If one offensive act is protected, why should the other not be?
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