All of Tennessee’s Republican state senators have signed a letter to the state’s university presidents and chancellors asking them to prevent student-athletes from kneeling during the national anthem.
“To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward,” wrote the lawmakers.
The inspiration for this letter was an incident at the University of Tennessee at Chatanooga last week, when the visiting men’s basketball team from East Tennessee State University decided to kneel during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The players claimed they were trying to call attention to racial inequality.
If university administrators followed through on the senators’ request, they would be violating student-athletes’ First Amendment rights. Students at public universities enjoy broad free speech protections, and officials cannot punish them for engaging in political expression.
This is not really an open question: The Supreme Court ruled in the 1943 decision West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that schools may not require students to salute the American flag. Yes, the Court has agreed with limiting K-12 students’ rights in some very specific cases—most dubiously, if students’ speech appeared to be advocating illegal drug use—but such an exception wouldn’t apply to college athletes engaged in a non-disruptive political protest. If the university could force student-athletes to stand for the national anthem, then it could force any student to do so—and this would obviously be unconstitutional.
Moreover, it’s a particularly galling example of Republicans seeking to use the power of the state to squelch speech that they don’t like. With their recent anti-cancel-culture crusade, conservatives occasionally sound as if they would like to be the party of free speech; this kind of behavior exposes them as hypocrites.