Free Speech, Patriotism & Colin Kaepernick

The First Amendment.

Being first generally means the most important, the most significant; it sets the tone for what is to follow. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment is integral to our Constitution and our fabric of our nation. Wars were fought to protect the Constitution as it stands. But there’s a funny thing about the First Amendment; folks forget that freedom of speech really means just that ― the freedom to express yourself however you see fit. As long as it is not coupled with an illegal act, or the possibility harming another person (the proverbial yelling fire in a crowded theater), then the speech is permissible.

So this makes the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner is very interesting to me.

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote in Texas v. Johnson decision regarding flag burning (which is legal, FYI) “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.”

It is clear many found San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand for the national anthem offensive. His subsequent explanation took the decision to the level of a controversy. 

He stated:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick /"}}">told’s Steve Wyche. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

What I find most fascinating is the response to his use of the First Amendment. When you look at the response, especially on Twitter, you will notice some very vile statements, including the use of the n-word.


A sample of some of the tweets regarding Colin Kaepernick
A sample of some of the tweets regarding Colin Kaepernick

Sadly, offensive as these tweets may be, it’s free speech. As long as it’s not coupled with an overt action or used in a discriminatory way by someone who holds power, the use of the n-word in and of itself is not a hate crime. So that same free speech, that same First Amendment that allows someone to use the N-word in public is the same of free speech that allows Colin Kaepernick to not stand for the national anthem. 

What does that say about us as a nation? A peaceful demonstration of dissent is greeted by racial animus?

If we look back in history, people in the 1960’s thought that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were extremely radical in their approach to civil rights. Some thought that they should take a more quiet tactic; that they should not protest or speak publicly about the racial injustices in this country. History has clearly proven this thought process wrong.

We look at the recent passing of boxing great Muhammad Ali. At the time, he refused to go fight in Vietnam because of the injustices that African-Americans were suffering in this country. He famously stated “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong”.  He was vilified, his heavyweight title was stripped from him, and his career was stymied as a result. As we look back upon his career now in 2016, he is being celebrated as a hero.

So what makes those acts of dissidence, of protest, any different than what Colin Kaepernick is doing right now? Clearly, it’s about timing. History will view actions more kindly as opposed to the current day climate. 

More importantly, we need to focus on what is being said. Don’t attack the messenger, listen to the message. It does not mean you have to agree, but at least listen. When we get to the point of attacking the messenger without exploring the message,we are not being patriotic. We are discouraging dissent, and thus discouraging free speech. How does that make us different from the Soviet Union circa 1980 or present day North Korea? Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an interesting piece in the Washington Post, saying “let athletes love their country in their own ways”. If this is the way Colin Kaepernick wishes to express his concern for the future of our United States, he should be permitted to do so. 

Interestingly enough, many are too busy attacking him to notice what he said about the elections ― in a cycle where many feel they are being marched at gun point to the polls; as one friend likened it to an Italian saying of “holding your nose as you vote”. He said: 

“You have Hillary, who has called black teens or black kids superpredators, you have Donald Trump who’s openly racist. We have a presidential candidate who has deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me because if that was any other person you’d be in prison. So, what is this country really standing for?””

 Again, he is expressing the same concerns that we have all heard in the cafeteria, at the barber shop, and at any place where folks gather.

Some folks referred to him as a hypocrite because of the fact that he was brought up in a privileged household, or because he is of mixed racial ancestry. That still does not address the underlying point ― the focus is still on the messenger. Colin Kaepernick is drawing attention, as someone with a platform, to issues of concern to him in this country. That is what America is founded on; the ability to discuss issues, to bring attention to concerns of other Americans, and to criticize the government without repercussions. However, when Colin Kaepernick exercised that right, he was met with vitriol, straight up racism, and the underlying point of how African-Americans are being treated by the police in this country was not up for discussion.

We will only move forward as a country when we listen to what others have to say, engage in intelligent discussions, and figure out a path forward. We are all free to disagree; but to insult someone just because their opinion is different from yours or their experience is different from yours is highly un-American.

It is in the same way we disagree on the Second Amendment ― there are those want no guns in the country, while others want unfettered access. At the end of the day you cannot take access to guns away since it is a Second Amendment right. However, we have to find ways to assure the public’s safety. 

First Amendment is the same concept; we disagree, yet we move forward. 

If you really want to talk about disrespect and being about getting the chance to represent your country in the Olympics, getting drunk, committing a crime in a foreign country, then lying and causing an international incident a la Ryan Lochte?

Not very patriotic. 

Voicing your opinion in a peaceful manner?

That’s as patriotic as apple pie. 

 I stand by Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest. I applaud the efforts that he and other athletes such as Michael Jordan have taken to raise awareness and elevate the discussion about policing in America, even at the peril of losing endorsements and money. Yes, I can already hear it; what are you doing in your own communities what about black on black violence? Here’s a newsflash: if an African-American kills another African-American, when they are caught, they will do a life sentence. It is the perception that police officers are not held accountable for their actions that drives the discussion about policing and if there are better ways to accomplish the goal of a safer society. I’m not saying that there are not times when police force is necessary and that some police shootings are justified. I have investigated those cases; I know this to be true firsthand. But there are other cases that disturb one to the core.  We in the criminal justice system have to do a better job of involving the community because no matter how fair you may be in your actions, perception is reality. And if the perception is that the system is not fair, then that is the reality.

It’s a complicated and a straightforward issue at the same time. What is straightforward is that everyone wants to be safe, live a good life, and go home to their loved ones. What’s complicated is how we get there. It will take a multifaceted approach. But we can’t work on a solution if we refuse to listen to those who are living the experience, using free speech to express themselves.

The best take I have seen so far is on Facebook by Navy veteran Jim Wright:

To you the National Anthem means one thing, to Kaepernick it means something else. We are all shaped and defined by our experiences and we see the world through our own eyes. That’s freedom. That’s liberty. The right to believe differently. The right to protest as you will. The right to demand better. The right to believe your country can BE better, that it can live up to its sacred ideals, and the right to loudly note that it has NOT. The right to use your voice, your actions, to bring attention to the things you believe in. The right to want more for others, freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and RESPECT.

A true veteran might not agree with Colin Kaepernick, but a true veteran would fight to the death to protect his right to say what he believes.

You don’t like what Kaepernick has to say? Then prove him wrong, BE the nation he can respect.

It’s really just that simple.

We are better. Let’s do better.  

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