NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Some Republican state lawmakers are unhappy with the East Tennessee State University men's basketball team for taking a knee during the national anthem.
The ETSU players knelt during the anthem last week. On Monday, several state senators sent a letter to public universities in Tennessee denouncing the decision to kneel.
The letter says the lawmakers do not condone any form of protest that could be viewed as disrespectful to our nation or flag while the players are representing the universities.
It also asks the universities to prohibit such actions going forward.
"We expect all those who walk onto the field of play representing our universities to also walk onto the field of play to show respect for our National Anthem," the senators wrote in their letter. "To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward."
The ACLU of Tennessee issued a statement commending the ETSU basketball team for exercising their right to free speech and criticized the senators' letter.
“Such policies would be unconstitutional," the ACLU said in part. "The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that neither public schools nor legislators can force their definition of patriotism on students by requiring students to participate in compelled speech. These students can say what they want as long as it does not disrupt the learning process."
ETSU Coach Jason Shay said his team's decision to kneel during the anthem last week was meant to spark a discussion about racial inequality in the community and throughout the country.
“Our intentions by no means involve disrespecting our country’s flag or the servicemen and women that put their lives on the line for our nation,” Shay said, according to the Johnson City Press. “You know we hold those heroes near and dear to our hearts, including two generals that have served our country right here in our backyard.
School president Brian Noland has supported the team's decision to kneel during the anthem.
“It’s my sincere hope that the image of our students expressing their beliefs on the field of play gives us an opportunity to come together to heal, have dialogue and to replace strife with unity,” Noland told the Johnson City Press.
Read the ACLU of Tennessee's full statement below.
“The ACLU of Tennessee commends the ETSU men's basketball team for using one of our nation's most valuable and practical tools for advocacy – freedom of expression. These young people exercised their constitutional rights to protest systemic racism and police violence. Freedom of expression does not cease to exist if you walk onto a basketball court – especially if you attend a public university. Your ability to protest peacefully does not disappear because of a scholarship, and your First Amendment rights are certainly not tied to lawmakers’ reactions to the content of your speech.
“Yesterday, during a Government Operations Committee hearing, state lawmakers used their platform to attack and insult these student-athletes. Tennessee senators doubled down this afternoon and sent a letter to leaders of public colleges and universities to adopt policies within their athletic departments to prohibit peaceful protest.
“Such policies would be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that neither public schools nor legislators can force their definition of patriotism on students by requiring students to participate in compelled speech. These students can say what they want as long as it does not disrupt the learning process.
“When public universities play the national anthem, they are opening a public forum for free expression under the First Amendment. Public universities cannot then turn around and censor students for expressing themselves by taking a knee. ETSU’s support for their students’ free expression is constitutional, appropriate, and in keeping with academic ideals of promoting free thought and dialogue.
“Tennessee lawmakers, on the other hand, are proposing that Tennessee’s universities create unconstitutional policies. Today's letter fits a recent pattern: state legislators have used their extraordinary power to chill the speech of those who take a stand, or a knee, in protest of racial inequality.
“Six months ago, Governor Bill Lee signed into law SB 8005, a bill enhancing offenses commonly associated with protests. The bill had its intended effect: swiftly ending the 62-day long People's Plaza Protest in support of racial equity. Tomorrow, the House Criminal Justice subcommittee will hear HB 513, a bill that grants immunity to drivers of vehicles who run over and kill a protester in the street. While Tennessee politicians talk a good game lauding the First Amendment, they are simultaneously busy taking action to shut down the speech of anyone with whom they disagree.
“The peaceful actions of the ETSU basketball team may offend some. Their freedom of expression, though, is not bound by lawmakers' fragile sensitivities.”
This story was originally published by WTVF in Nashville, Tennessee.