2018 First Place Winner
Greenwich High School, Grade 11
Teacher: Aaron Hull
Patriotism is a staple of American culture and law. Every morning, public school staff
across the nation are legally required to lead their students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as they face the American flag. The issue arises when patriotism clashes with another major American principle, freedom, as recently seen in the controversy surrounding the decision of several NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem. The First Amendment protects the right of NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem due to government involvement, legal precedent governing national symbols, and the presence of racial tensions.
Although the NFL is a private corporation, government involvement surrounding the
protests has granted players the protection of the First Amendment. The First Amendment
states,” … Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” The NFL itself is a private corporation and can, therefore, restrict the speech of its employees. However, recent comments coming from the president and attorney general present themselves as pressures from the government to infringe upon the rights of NFL players.
President Trump tweeted on Sept. 27, 2017, “The only way … is to set a rule that you can’t kneel …,” while Attorney General Jefferson Sessions affirmed, “They should be able to say to the players,’… you should respect the flag and the national anthem.’” The government pressure reflected in these comments means that NFL players are protected by the First Amendment. Any attempt by the NFL to punish players who choose to kneel during the anthem would be a direct infringement on the First Amendment, as such punitive actions can be arguably a result of government pressure.
It is also important to note that the anthem does not present itself as an exception to the
freedom of expression. In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Gregory
Johnson to burn the American flag as a form of speech, and stated that the government did not have the power to restrict what messages symbols could be used to express. As a result of this legal precedent, NFL players have the right to kneel, despite the national importance of the anthem. The anthem can be used to express the suffering of the black community as
legitimately as it is used to express national pride.
In addition, the NFL players are protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits
any form of discrimination in the workplace. The decision to kneel during the anthem is one that represents disapproval of the murder of innocent black Americans at the hands of police officers due to racial stereotyping. Any attempt to silence protest against discrimination would be legally seen as a display of support for prejudice, which is prohibited in the workplace.
The First Amendment protects the right of NFL players to kneel during the anthem
because of recent government involvement, legal precedent governing symbolic speech, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Subsequently, the NFL did not punish Colin Kaepernick, one of the first players to kneel, but there were still consequences for the quarterback. Kaepernick was left an unsigned player during the offseason of 2017. No team was willing to take him because of his choice to speak up against police brutality, despite his athletic superiority over other quarterbacks.
In order for the government to truly protect all people from being silenced, it must begin to strike down laws that treat national symbols, such as the anthem, as holy under the state. By promoting intense patriotism, the American government has advocated for the restriction of First Amendment rights.