As the NFL begins to pay the price in popularity and falling ticket sales for the spreading anthem protests, some high schools and colleges are taking action to prevent their athletes from following in the footsteps of the professional players. Some schools are emphasizing existing policies that prohibit players from taking a knee during the national anthem as well as instituting new bans on the protest.
The Daily Wire notes that at least three schools around the country have released statements that point out that school policy prohibits players from kneeling during the anthem. While the Daily Wire says that the schools are instituting bans on taking a knee, statements from some of the schools point out that the policies are not new.
Colorado Christian University released a statement that said, “The University athletic department has always required our student athletes and coaches to stand respectfully for any pre-game or post-game prayers, as well as for the National Anthem. Contrary to several reports, this is not a new position.”
The superintendent of Manatee County schools in Florida, Jason Montgomery, sent an email to schools in his district pointing out that both federal and state laws mandate that students stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. Montgomery wrote, “The Code of Student Conduct complies with all statutory requirements that include requiring a student to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, unless excused in writing by a parent.”
Some schools are setting new policies in response to the controversy. In Louisiana, Parkway High School Principal Waylon Bates said in a letter to students and parents that “the Louisiana High School Athletic Association allows school principals to make decisions regarding student participation in the National Anthem.” Bates instructs his students and faculty to “stand in a respectful manner throughout the National Anthem” and warns that “failure to comply will result in loss of playing time and/or participation” and even “removal from the team.”
The First Amendment protects Americans from attacks on freedom of speech and expression by the government, not private employers. Private companies can take action against employees who exercise their First Amendment rights even though the government cannot.
The NFL is a private organization with its own rules. If the NFL quashed the anthem protests, it would not be a violation of the First Amendment. In spite of internet rumors, the NFL does not have a rule requiring players to stand for the National Anthem. If it did, the government would have no legal standing to require the organization to enforce such a rule.
The Constitution does protect the right to protest from government interference. The Supreme Court has even protected the act of burning the flag under the First Amendment. When President Trump urges the NFL to fire players who take a knee during the National Anthem, using the power of the “bully pulpit” to attempt to limit free speech, he comes close to a violation of the First Amendment.
Ironically, schools may have a more difficult time banning the anthem protests than the NFL. Public schools are government entities and school policies are limited by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that students do not give up their free speech rights when they enter a school, but that schools do have the right to limit actions that disrupt the educational process. A public school might well lose a lawsuit over a kneeling ban.
Americans seem to understand this balanced view of protest and respect for the flag. The Seton Hall Sports Poll found that 49 percent of respondents thought that NFL players had a right to protest, but also thought that they should stand for the National Anthem.
As the controversy continues, schools and professional sports organizations will be challenged to find a balance between these opposing viewpoints. While the initial reaction of schools may be to institute bans on taking a knee, such policies may not be a quick resolution to the issue.