Freedom of speech is a hallmark of American Democracy. It is a staple in our society and is safeguarded in our Constitution. This has taken many forms throughout our history. Today it is amazingly still under attack, and from the current White House administration no less! The White House takes issue with any criticisms the press aims its way, legitimate or not. This is perhaps to be expected with the current occupant. But what has really spurred a lot of this conversation in larger society stems from a seemingly small protest started three years ago at a professional football game. During the second preseason game of the 2016 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick chose to sit instead of stand during the national anthem. During the final game of that preseason Kaepernick switched from sitting to kneeling in an attempt to show more respect for military members while still drawing attention to the social issues he felt were being neglected in the United States. He is currently out of a job, and many blame his anthem protest as the reason behind his apparent blacklisting. However, the movement has started to gain steam and now the entire league is grappling with the issue as entire teams participate.
I must confess that my opinions on the anthem protests have changed over time. When Kaepernick initially began this, I was bothered. I did feel it was disrespectful and out of line. I now realize that I was completely and utterly wrong. Not only was I naïve in not seeing the extent of the racial issues this country is still battling, but I failed to appreciate the statement being made and the respect that was still held by the protestors. I always used to put my hand over my heart and sing the national anthem whenever it was played before a game. I vividly remember in high school being complimented by a parent as I was one of the very few, if not only one on our soccer team to place my hand on my heart during the anthem. I now no longer sing nor place my hand on my heart during the anthem.
It is not out of a disrespect for our military; this seems to be the most common criticism hurled at the protestors. The men and women serving our country deserve the upmost respect, appreciation, and support from every single citizen in the United States. I still feel I do all of those things; if I ever get the chance I thank any service member, police officer, fire fighter, etc. for all they do for this country. However, I no longer feel the connection to the nation that would lead me to place my hand on my heart and sing the anthem.
In my mind, placing your hand on your heart and pledging something means that it matters deeply to you. You are making a promise and supporting something. You identify with it so much that it is in your heart. Despite the Department of Defense’s best attempts, by funneling money into professional football, it does not signify respect or support for the military or government. It is an impactful, weighted action that comes with significant meaning. I no longer identify with the United States. I feel more pride listening to “O, Canada” than “The Star Spangled Banner.” I chose to stand, hands at my side or behind my back, out of respect for the United States. I would stand out of respect for any nation’s anthem when it is played. For me the United States is now simply another nation to which I will offer respect but I will not pledge my allegiance. And I can have no serious complaint against those who choose to express similar sentiments in their own way.
Any pride at being an American vanished on November 8th, 2016. I used to feel hope that despite all of the problems in our country we continued to move forward and work to address them; we may not have always been successful but the overall trend was forward. I no longer have those feelings. Yes Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote, but any country that could have that many people vote for (or not even bother to vote against) a misogynistic, egotistical, sexual predator is not a country of mine.
Wrapping this back to freedom of speech, anthem protests are just that, a freedom of speech. When Trump actively attacks them and NFL owners threaten those engaging in free speech, they are going against core fundamental American beliefs. Of course freedom of speech can be abused. Look to the Neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville. When one’s freedom of speech is leading to physical harm of others that is when one’s freedom stops. Speech is powerful. Yes, it is only words or an expression of oneself. But it has the ability to incite dangerous situations in society. When words reach that level, they are no longer protected by the Constitution; hence why you can’t randomly shout fire in a theater. Everyone deserves the ability to express themselves through speech, no matter which side of an issue one falls. However, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution does not guarantee freedom to say anything. Lines are drawn at such things as libel, slander, inciting panic or violence. This past August in Charlottesville, VA the Neo-Nazi’s were not protected by freedom of speech because of the violence they incited. In comparison, kneeling or simply standing and not participating in an anthem is not a violation of others safety and is protected under freedom of speech.
Now more than ever freedom of speech must be championed in this country. You may not always like what the other side is saying but they have a right to their opinions and to verbalize them. It doesn’t mean we have to listen. We do have to protect everyone’s rights. The press must continue to fight the oppressive White House and publish the truth. Those facing oppression and injustice must continue to speak out. America can only truly be great when we can trumpet our ideals honestly and openly. Continued hypocrisy will only serve to further erode this country from within as well as on the global stage.