Those who were hoping that the start of the NFL season would be a return to friendly rivalry and a reprieve from political enmity were in for a rude surprise. Speaking at a rally in Alabama, President Trump called on the NFL to fire any players who, following the trend set by Colin Kaepernick, knelt during the national anthem. Protests exploded around the country and across the globe in response, with many players kneeling during the anthem and some even refusing to leave the locker room until it was over.
I understand the outrage and anger that these protests have caused. My father was a Green Beret who risked his life to serve his country, and as such I don’t take any insult to our flag lightly. That said, he – and conservative America at large – is wrong to call on the NFL to fire these players. It’s a fundamentally un-American demand. In America, we believe in freedom of speech for everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. And it is especially important to defend the free speech rights of those with whom we disagree.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that we’re required to personally approve of how other people use this right or affirm what they say. No matter what you think about the issues these players are attempting to raise, kneeling during the anthem doesn’t actually do much to effect change. But the brilliant – and challenging – thing about the First Amendment is that it doesn’t just protect effective speech, or heroic speech, or patriotic speech. It protects all speech, all the time, under all circumstances.
Many conservatives, in their frustration, have forgotten this far too quickly. We need to remember that while the First Amendment protects the players’ rights to pull this stunt, it also protects Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter’s right to speak on Berkeley’s campus, Mike Pence’s right to speak at Notre Dame, Betsy DeVos’ right to speak at Bethune-Cookman, Charles Murray’s right to speak at Middlebury, and Heather Mac Donald’s right to speak at Claremont McKenna. By objecting to Kaepernick’s right to take a knee at the game, conservatives are essentially doing the same thing that leftist students and faculty on college campuses do – shutting down free speech because they don’t like the speaker or what is being said.
You don’t have to like what Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are doing. You can call it un-American, unpatriotic and ungrateful. You can call it slacktivism, and you can point to the men and women of our armed forces who have died defending our flag. But you can’t tell them that they don’t have a right to do what they do and in good faith call yourself a constitutional conservative.
The First Amendment comes first in the Bill of Rights for a reason. It is the most basic of all our liberties and the cornerstone of our free society. As conservatives, we must do all we can to defend it – and we also need to exercise it well ourselves. That means resisting the temptation to engage in social media slacktivism and showdowns. That means applauding the law enforcement officials who protect conservative speakers on college campuses and liberal football players on the field.
Most importantly, it means engaging in forms of speech and activism that actually help solve the problems facing our nation. Thousands of American citizens have gone to Puerto Rico, Mexico, Florida and Texas to help after this season’s series of natural disasters. You won’t read many news articles about them, but it is these Americans – those who turned off the TV, logged out of Twitter and Facebook, and put aside their time, privilege and power to help others – that are the true heroes and the true defenders of our liberty.
Austin Petersen is a candidate for the United States Senate. Learn more at austinpetersen.com.
Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.