Freedom for the thought that we hate

Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves that Americans have the constitutional right to do unpopular, even obnoxious things in public, like kneeling when the national anthem is played at a football game or screaming “lock her up” at a political rally. A little perspective may be in order. 

Freedom of speech has been a pretty popular idea in these United States for just as about as long as we have had these United States. It was enshrined in the Constitution in 1791, along with freedom of religion, assembly and the press, as the first of ten Amendments known as the Bill of Rights. The two revered symbols of those American rights recently in the news, the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, came along a bit later. 

And when athletes sit or kneel, they are not making a statement against the anthem or the flag, but against a condition in their nation that see as un-American. 

The great UConn athlete Ray Allen said it well: “We have to tell our young black men, our children, ‘do not resist, put your hands in the air’ — all these things white men don’t have to tell their white children.”

During much of the 20th century, there was a popular comic strip called Ripley’s Believe It or Not, featuring facts so strange or bizarre that they were hard to believe. And on Nov. 3, 1929, the strip’s readers were surprised to be told, “Believe it or not, America has no national anthem.”

The Star Spangled Banner, written during the War of 1812, wasn’t often sung in public until World War I, and during the 1920s, six bills to recognize the song as the nation’s official anthem failed in Congress. 

There was concern about how hard it was to sing, and many congressmen and citizens preferred other selections, such as “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” “America, the Beautiful” and “Hail, Columbia.” 

It took a presentation by three female vocalists to convince the House of Representatives that the adaptation of the 18th century English drinking song was actually singable before a bill passed in the House and Senate was signed by Herbert Hoover in 1931.

Title 36 of the U.S. Code proclaimed that “the composition of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem” and says “individuals in uniform should give the military salute” and veterans not in uniform may also salute the flag. All others should remove their hats and hold them over their hearts.

When there isn’t a flag to salute, the Code says, “all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.” 

The Code states what those present should do, not must do. There is no requirement, just an understanding of how we’re expected to behave when the anthem is played. Nor is there any prohibition of sitting or kneeling or chatting or eating hot dogs or engaging in any other activity. 

This is a free country, as we like to say. 

Kneeling while the band plays the national anthem may be objectionable, but it isn’t the equivalent of falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, and it is a protected form of speech, protected by the Constitution, even from presidents. 

That said, we also have the right to question the motive and judgment of the quarterback who started it all by wearing a Fidel Castro T-shirt and socks depicting cops as pigs. We may also question the motive and judgment of the president who called kneelers “sons of bitches” and ordered them fired — but the quarterback and the president enjoy equal constitutional protection for their speech. 

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, the Constitution protects “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

That freedom extends even to those who disrespect that other cherished symbol, the flag. Like the national anthem, the pledge of allegiance is also a relative newcomer to American life.

The pledge, written by a socialist clergyman, was the winning entry in an 1892 magazine contest celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was recited in schools for nearly 50 years before Congress made it part of the U.S. Code in 1942. 

Two years earlier, the Supreme Court had upheld a West Virginia law compelling school children to pledge their allegiance. But when the nation went to war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who looked upon the flag as a graven image they couldn’t worship, were frequently assaulted by mobs demanding their allegiance. The Court, seeing what it had done, reversed itself in 1943, with Justice Robert Jackson ruling for the majority:

“No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

And that is the law of the land. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.