The First Amendment was placed at the head of the line of the Bill of Rights because it is arguably the most important — enshrining freedom of speech and religion, which was a revolutionary concept in the 18th century and remains so today in much of the world.
It may be the most controversial. While not absolute, it affords opportunities to express opinions many find abhorrent.
We have noted the U.S. Supreme Court consistently has struck down attempts by public universities to restrict “hate speech.” In that regard, conservatives have taken aim at political correctness on campuses.
Freedom of expression also means Americans cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag. During World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned those West Virginia requirements when challenged by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Writing for a 6-3 majority in West Virginia v. Barnette, Justice Robert Jackson stated, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
President Donald Trump has taken aim at that “fixed star in our constitutional constellation” with an unprecedented call to fire National Football League players who protest during the national anthem and for boycotts against teams tolerating such displays.
Trump took time out from baiting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to allude to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the protests a year ago and hasn’t found an NFL roster spot since, with a crude term.
In the wake of numerous deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, Kaepernick remarked, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Only sporadic protests subsequently occurred — until Trump’s tirade unified players and many owners, some of whom had donated as much as $1 million to his campaign or inaugural. Protests Sunday and Monday weren’t about the flag per se, but Trump wrapping himself in it.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the players association found common ground condemning his remarks. Trump friend and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called his remarks “divisive.”
Despite the public perception, protesting players maintained the demonstrations weren’t against the military or patriotism, but about civil rights concerns. Following a backlash from police last year, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, the son of a policeman, began a dialogue with the department. The same scenario occurred in Cleveland earlier this season between players and first responders.
Those were constructive developments. Trump’s penchant for confrontation is not.
His comments smacked of sour grapes as well. As owner of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals, Trump pursued an antitrust case against the NFL to gain admittance. He won, but was only awarded $1. Juror Patricia Sibilia said, “I thought he was extremely arrogant, and I thought that he was obviously trying to play the game. He wanted an NFL franchise. … The USFL was a cheap way in.”
Trump also went on the offensive against another majority African-American league, disinviting the National Basketball Association champion Golden State Warriors from a White House visit. Players and management had considered a dialogue with Trump, particularly after his post-Charlottesville statement about “many fine people” on both sides of the white supremacists’ rally.
But their disdain for him was well known. When Under Armour chief executive officer Kevin Plank told CNBC Trump was an “asset” for the country, his highest-profile pitchman, Warrior guard Stephen Curry, responded, “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et’” from asset.”
Forward Kevin Durant said he wouldn’t go. “I don’t agree with what he believes in. I’m all about equality.”
Trump tweeted his comments weren’t racist, but he has a history of denigrating civil rights concerns. He also made a point of praising virtually all-white NASCAR, where Confederate flags are frequently present at racetracks.
We respect the flag and cherish the ideals it stands for. Yet when Americans have reason to be disappointed if those ideals aren’t realized, they have a constitutional right to nonviolently express their displeasure whether it involves the flag, anthem or pledge — without the president threatening livelihoods or name-calling.
And, yes, those offended by the demonstrations also have a right to boycott games.