President Donald Trump’s demands that the NFL team owners fire athletes who kneel or otherwise protest during the playing of the national anthem at football games is blatantly inconsistent with our nation’s most fundamental constitutional and democratic values. The president of the United States, using the power of his bully pulpit and Twitter feed, to rail against private citizens’ political expression can constitute a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
While it is important to confront Trump’s divisive words, we should not fall into his rhetorical trap and lose sight of the original purpose of the players’ protest. The players are calling attention to the fact that there are glaring disparities in how African-Americans are dealt with under our criminal justice system and their treatment by law enforcement officers, which often have deadly consequences.
If President Trump and his administration really cared about racial divisions in our country, they would work with us to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform and meaningful police accountability legislation ― both of which have remain bipartisan issues in Congress. Instead, the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions have been undoing the very real progress made by the Obama Administration to address these issues. Republicans in Congress must stand up to the Trump administration’s rollbacks of critical policing, criminal justice reform and community accountability policies.
No one should ever mistake that the fight for justice in America is anything less than an act of patriotism. As a veteran, I believe the players’ protest is far from ‘un-American.’ To the contrary, their nonviolent protest is in keeping with the traditions and values established by generations of civil rights leaders who have advocated for racial equality.
I respect the NFL owners standing up for the players last weekend. However, the true test of their willingness to protect players’ pursuit of justice will be if they ensure that no NFL player loses a job because he has the courage to speak out, as Colin Kaepernick did last year.
According to former Yale Law School Dean Robert Post, President Trump threatening or using the powers or imprimatur of his office to coerce a private entity like the NFL to take action against a citizen in retaliation for that citizen’s expression, could constitute a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
In July 2016, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Ranking Member John Conyers announced the establishment of a working group to examine police accountability, aggression towards law enforcement, and public safety concerns related to these issues. Watch Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Conyers discuss the issue here.