09/18/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

First Amendment Sacks MD Lawmaker on Marriage Equality


Maryland State Delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. (D - Baltimore County, and no relation to yours truly, thankfully) strongly opposes marriage equality. Obviously that is no story in and of itself as many lawmakers in Maryland share Burns' views. Unlike those other lawmakers, however, Burns used his position as an elected official to attempt to intimidate a privately owned business to silence employees that may support marriage equality.

To further add a wrinkle to the story, that privately owned business was the Baltimore Ravens. You see, Ravens linebacker and special team's ace Brendon Ayanbadejo has long been an advocate for marriage equality, both nationally and in Maryland. Ayanbadejo often posts on the topic on social media (through his tweets and in YouTube clips) and recently donated a pair of Ravens' tickets (which can be hard to come by) to a fundraiser for the group "Marylanders for Marriage Equality."

This relatively benign gesture from a civil-minded professional athlete apparently crossed a line for Burns. On August 29, 2012, Burns wrote to Steve Biscotti, the owner of the Ravens and stated that he finds "it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically as a Raven Football player." Burns went on to say that many of the Ravens' "football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide."

What is appalling is Mr. Burns' absolute disdain for the First Amendment. Burns states that Ayanbadejo's actions were done "specifically as a Raven" and yet it is Burns that effectively spit in the face of the First Amendment and did so "specifically as a Maryland Legislator," in that he used the official Maryland House of Delegates' letterhead and claimed to write on behalf of his constituents.

To make matters worse (both logically and constitutionally), Burns was not satisfied simply voicing his displeasure to the Ravens' owner, but rather called for Ayanbadejo to be punished for voicing his beliefs. Burns demanded that Biscotti "take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employee that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayambadejo [sic] is doing. Please give me your immediate response."

The Ravens refused Burns' demand and Ravens' President Dick Cass has stated that "[w]e support Brendon's right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment." How is it that the football team considers the First Amendment and the elected official does not? Regardless, it turns out that Burns' claim that no other NFL player is doing what Ayanbadejo is doing is also wrong. Minnesota Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe jumped to Ayanbadejo's defense and posted a scathing (and off-color) rebuke of Burns' nonsensical demands. Kluwe was joined by celebrity Ellen DeGeneres and political analyst Keith Olberman in their support of Ayanbadejo and rebuke of Burns' foolishness.

Burns has now changed his tune. Not on equal marriage rights, of course, but rather on the demand that the Ravens somehow punish Ayanbadejo. It is fairly easy (and awfully convenient) to revoke your demand when the other side has already said "no." Burns said in an interview last week that "upon reflection, [Ayanbadejo] has his First Amendment rights. And I have my First Amendment rights. ... Each of us has the right to speak our opinions. The football player and I have a right to speak our minds."

You would think a politician wouldn't need to learn that fifth grade civics lesson in such a bumbling and embarrassing manner. Not only does Burns now look like a foolish bully, but he has ironically elevated Ayanbadejo's status as a spokesman for marriage equality to a national level. We can only hope that other similarly civic-minded athletes feel free to support what they believe in without fear of intimidation from publicly elected officials.