While in Huntsville, Alabama, President Trump said, ‘Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son-of-a-b**** off the field right now, out. He’s fired.”
Denying people constitutional protections is precisely the opposite of what the government’s job is — even if those people are provocative.
Trump is angry at athletes for exercising their right to speech; but his anger did not begin there. Last February, at a campaign rally in Texas, Donald Trump spoke of “open(ing) up libel laws.” He never explained exactly what he meant but clearly is fed up with the First Amendment, which prohibits denying freedom of speech and the press.
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Athletes and journalists are not his only targets. Last November, Trump suggested imprisoning people or revoking their citizenship if they burned an American flag. Never mind that the Supreme Court has already come down on the other side of that issue. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable … The way to preserve the flag’s special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong,” wrote Justice William Brennan in his majority opinion in 1989. The following year, the Court rejected a federal “flag protection” act, declaring, “Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.”
Trump couldn’t care less about the right to dissent. He is particularly incensed with Colin Kaepernick, who has become more famous for kneeling in protest against racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem than for his accomplishments as a quarterback. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” Kaepernick said, explaining his motivation last year. Trump finds Kaepernick‘s repugnant. “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him,” Trump told an interviewer.
As other players have joined Karpernick’s protest, Trump’s anger has grown. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners … say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired,” roared Trump at a rally. On Twitter, Trump attacked Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors for his reluctance to visit the Trump White House. “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” tweeted Trump. Lebron James reacted with a tweet of his own: “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up.”
Trump’s amen corner, of course, backed him up. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said players should “do free speech on their own time.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders snidely suggested the athletes protest the police protecting them. What Trump and his salaried sycophants refuse to understand is that they don’t get to dictate how or whether other people protest. The First Amendment does not say, “Only presidentially approved protests allowed.”
Nonetheless, Trump seems on a mission to destroy constitutional protections, as journalist Bill Moyers put it, “almost a campaign to kill free speech,” but not just free speech. Trump has famously argued for re-imprisoning the Central Park Five even though DNA tests and a confession by the real perpetrator exonerated them of a brutal sexual assault. And he pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was convicted of violating Latinos’ rights. In Trump’s eyes the sheriff was simply “doing his job.”
Denying people constitutional protections is, of course, precisely the opposite of the government’s job — even if those people are loathsome, provocative or outrageous. That is why the American Civil Liberties Union has long defended Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other thoroughly objectionable people. For if government is allowed to silence such hateful Americans, it can easily silence others.
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Even without Trump confusing people about their rights, a lot of Americans are ignorant about the Constitution. A new survey of college undergraduates by the Brookings Institute’s John Villasenor found that 44% of respondents erroneously thought hate speech was not protected by the Constitution. Another 16% were unsure. A more knowledgeable and principled president might take on the task of helping Americans better understand their rights. Trump is not that president.
Instead, he is fighting with football players and team officials — at a time when over three million American citizens in Puerto Rico (a disproportionately high number of whom, unlike our president, served in the military) are suffering through third-world conditions following the worst hurricane in the island’s history. Why isn’t Trump leading rallies to support them and to encourage other Americans to do the same? Why, instead, is he stirring up racial division, intimidating athletes and trying to silence the press?
Before last weekend’s game, both the Seahawks and Titans decided not to take the field for the national anthem. Both teams offered statements explaining their decision. “We unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms,” said the Seahawks. “Our commitment to the military and our community is resolute and the absence of our team for the national anthem shouldn’t be misconstrued as unpatriotic,” explained the Titans.
The two sports teams — and many others who have joined them in protest understand the essence and obligations of American citizenship better than the nation’s president. Too bad Trump is attacking them instead of learning from them.
Ellis Cose, senior fellow and writer in residence at the American Civil Liberties Union and author of The End of Anger, The Rage of a Privileged Class and other books, is a member of USA Today’s board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisCose.
NFL won’t discipline teams that skipped Anthem | 1:01
The three NFL teams that chose to stay in the locker room and did not participate in the national anthem will not be disciplined, a league spokesman said.
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National anthem takes center stage across the NFL | 0:56
After President Trump said players who kneel during the anthem should lose their jobs, over 200 players and several owners demonstrated in various ways Sunday.
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Multiple Patriots players kneel during National Anthem | 1:48
A large group of Patriots players, including cornerback’s Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, knelt during the national anthem prior to Sunday’s game against the Texans. Tom Brady was seen locking arms with teammate Phillip Dorsett.
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NFL’s Paul Tagliabue calls Trump remarks ‘Insulting and disgraceful’ | 0:29
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue calls Donald Trump’s comments on NFL protests ‘insulting and disgraceful’.
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Group of Saints Players Sit During National Anthem | 1:20
Several members of the New Orleans Saints did not stand during the national anthem prior to Sunday’s game against the Panthers.
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Jaguars owner Shad Khan, a one-time Trump supporter, responds to Trump’s comments, and his team protesting during the national anthem.
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