Selectively defending the First Amendment

Selectively defending the First Amendment

Photo Credits: MIKE MORBECK [(CC BY-SA 2.0)] / FLICKR

Democrats and Republicans cite the right to free speech only when it’s convenient for them

This summer Nike launched an ad campaign featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, sparking controversy and outrage from many, including President Donald Trump. This is because Kaepernick, starting in 2016, protested social injustice — specifically unjustified police violence — by taking a knee during national anthems before his football games. Many mischaracterized Kaepernick’s actions as disrespectful to the American flag and, by extension, America.

The disproportionate use of excessive force against minorities by law enforcement isn’t an issue Democrats are conjuring up to spur polarization — it’s sadly an inarguable fact. While black citizens constitute 13 percent of the US population, they make up 39 percent of people killed by police while behaving non-violently. Aside from fatalities, black citizens, especially men, are disproportionately pulled over and harassed by police. While black people are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white citizens, they are far more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes and serve sentences that are longer than those of white men convicted for the same crimes.

In light of these facts and the numerous killings — many of them caught on camera — of unarmed, unthreatening, law-abiding black citizens, Kaepernick and other athletes took a knee during the national anthem throughout the 2016 season. For many Republicans, these demonstrations amassed more outrage than the killings themselves. While these Republicans feel disrespected when citizens kneel during the anthem, many people — not just Democrats — feel disrespected in turn when Republicans downplay these unjustified killings. Half of the country feels the travails of black citizens are a politically-motivated fabrication, while the other half feels the former is heartless and uncaring. This disparity makes it incredibly difficult to reconcile or at least hear one another sincerely and with good intentions.

Yet the point of this column is not to convince you to support or condemn taking a knee or the Nike campaign or Republicans. We may never agree on the legitimacy of these protests, but we should at least be able to agree on the legitimacy of the First Amendment and our constitutionally-protected right to free speech.

The message behind Kaepernick’s protest is arguably less important than his fundamental right to free speech. Both Republicans and Democrats have historically shown a deep respect for the First Amendment; both have used it to defend the actions of those who share their political beliefs, and even at times to defend the rights of those we find repulsive.

This is one of the most polarizing periods in U.S. politics. Basic rights that both Republicans and Democrats used to agree on irrespective of political ideology are now being vehemently fought over. It seems as though there is no issue that Americans can agree on, even when it comes to rights we all share.

It is in all of our interests to defend each person’s right to free speech, thereby strengthening respect and enforcement of the First Amendment. Imposing limits on free speech because you don’t like what the other side has to say is entirely anti-democratic and anti-American. When you take away free speech, you take away free thought — you take away freedom itself.

The outrage and assumption of ill intentions are made in bad faith. At a time when the United States is deeply divided, both sides seem to ignore their core beliefs and sincerity in favor of their party. Republicans oppose the right to free speech when it’s used to promote issues critical to many black Americans. And while former president Barack Obama didn’t enact a “zero tolerance policy” for immigration like the Trump administration, he did separate families — an issue for which Democrats have only criticized Trump.

We would be far better off trying to understand rather than combat each other. But if we can’t do that, we can at least defend the rights that all Americans share, including Kaepernick’s right to peacefully spread awareness as well as Nike’s choice to embrace and magnify his message.

Written by: Hanadi Jordan — hajordan@ucdavis.edu

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