The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution isn’t just the numerical starter of these constitutional provisions. In many ways, it is the most important of the amendments. It protects freedom of the press and religion, but it also protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Charles Evans Hughes, a former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said this about that portion of the First Amendment: “Peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime.” And yet, there are some who would make the redress of grievances a firing offense, if not a crime.
All across the country, there have been instances where NFL football players took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest what they see as racial injustice. They have every right to do this, and that right is an inherent part of the Constitution. But you hear demands in many quarters that the players who don’t stand during the national anthem should be fired.
This issue has become a controversial one in Georgia because of the actions of five African-American cheerleaders at Kennesaw State University. At a home football game on Sept. 30, the KSU cheerleaders kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. That set off fireworks from conservative politicians like state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, who demanded that KSU officials not allow those cheerleaders to kneel again.
Two days after that football game, KSU President Sam Olens and several other college presidents were called to a meeting at the University System of Georgia offices in Atlanta. Olens and the other presidents were advised that, “pursuant to the First Amendment, students could not be prohibited from kneeling during the national anthem so long as the expression was not disruptive,” according to a university system report.
At the next home game on Oct. 7, however, KSU officials made a change in their normal pregame procedures and kept the cheerleaders off the field during the playing of the national anthem. “Olens was aware of the proposed change three days before it implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” said a University System report. “President Olens also did not advise the University System office of the proposed change, although he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”
It’s bad enough that Olens disobeyed instructions from his superiors in the university system. What’s worse is that Olens is an attorney with a law degree from Emory University. You would expect an Emory law graduate to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but Olens apparently missed class that day. As the KSU president, he essentially sat back and allowed the constitutional rights of his students to be trampled upon. The incident was an embarrassment both to Kennesaw State and to the university system.
I stand for the national anthem at sporting events. When the General Assembly is in session, I stand and pledge allegiance to the flag each day of the session. That’s my choice, but I don’t begrudge others who choose to take a different approach. As a journalist and a citizen, it would be very hypocritical of me to criticize others who avail themselves of the same First Amendment that is so important to the news business.
I will leave the final word for Russell Willard, an attorney in the state law department who wrote an advisory memo to the university system. “Student athletes and students in supporting roles within the athletic department enjoy the same First Amendment protections as the general public,” Willard wrote. “The students are thus entitled to choose what they say through their words and actions, even if those expressions through someone else’s eyes are misguided or even hurtful.”
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