On February 15, 2021, the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team was photographed kneeling during the national anthem before a game against UT Chattanooga. On February 22, 2021, all twenty-seven Republican members of the Tennessee Senate sent a letter to Tennessee university leaders calling on them to ban student athletes from exercising their right to protest during athletic events. Together with FIRE and PEN America, NCAC is calling on those university leaders to resist both political and public pressure and to defend their students’ rights to peacefully protest.

Athletes kneeling during the national anthem is a now-common form of protest against police brutality and racial injustice. A brief overview of related attempts to stifle these protests in public schools is available in NCAC’s national anthem protest timeline.

Attempts to bar student-athletes from kneeling during the national anthem would violate the First Amendment and Tennessee law by infringing on athletes’ protest rights and compelling them to participate in a prescribed demonstration of patriotism. The First Amendment protects both the students’ rights to engage in symbolic speech–like kneeling–and to refrain from symbolic speech–like standing for the national anthem. As our letter explains:

The refusal to stand in symbolic reverence of our national symbols is a well-established right under the First Amendment, as our Supreme Court recognized even in the dark days of World War II that requiring students to stand for the flag is contrary to our national commitment to freedom of conscience.

Just as the Supreme Court has ruled that students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, student-athletes do not leave their free speech rights in the locker room.

As NCAC has written previously regarding student protests during the national anthem,

By banning or discouraging students from participating in protests against racial discrimination, police brutality and other important issues, schools not only violate their First Amendment rights but deny them the opportunity to join a national debate that can contribute to their civic education.

NCAC, FIRE and PEN America are calling on university leaders to accede to one of the lawmakers’ demands: to make this incident a “teaching moment”. Tennessee universities should create a civic teaching moment for the public at large by explaining how—and why—the First Amendment does not permit the University of Tennessee to violate students’ rights by punishing or prohibiting student-athlete expression because it is perceived as insufficiently patriotic.

Read the full letter below. Click here for a full screen view: