More than a year after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest police brutality, we now find ourselves living in climate of conflict whenever and wherever the national anthem is played.
Facilitated by a tweet-happy president who has worked tirelessly to corrupt the meaning of Kaepernick’s gesture, our current state is not just affecting the personal freedoms of athletes challenging Trump’s orders of obligatory shows of patriotism. The personal freedoms of everyday people are being menaced, including right here at home.
A Woodland High School chemistry teacher last week was placed on administrative leave for taking a knee as “The Star Spangled Banner” played during a homecoming pep rally. While kneeling, Windy Pappas placed her right over her heart. In her left hand was a “Black Lives Matter” sign. A poster nearby her stated: “It’s okay to disagree with any sign here.”
You might ask why the national anthem was being played during a pep rally. You might also ask why a teacher felt the need to promote her political beliefs at a homecoming event. Both are fair questions. But there is a larger question that needs to be addressed here, and it has to do with with the dangers of forced conformity.
The U.S. Supreme Court warned against this threat to liberty in 1943, when it ruled that West Virginia school officials could not force school kids to say the pledge of allegiance or salute the flag. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters,” the court wrote in a landmark ruling whose meaning is being forgotten today.
According to public accounts, there was no student fallout from Pappas’ display. Nevertheless, school officials later visited her classroom and escorted her to the parking lot, where she was told to leave campus. After the administration conducted an investigation, she returned to work Tuesday.
Some might say “no harm no foul.” The Woodland school district did its job. Pappas’ pay was not docked. She’s back at work. No big deal, right?
Wrong. It is a big deal, because this did not happen in a vacuum. There have been similar reports of outsized, irrational reactions to people taking a knee since Trump began banging the drum about mandatory patriotism in a way that even makes conservatives like Rush Limbaugh nervous.
“Trump is continually tweeting; I know what he’s doing, and I understand why he’s doing it,” Limbaugh said on Oct. 11. “But I don’t think that it is useful or helpful for any employee anywhere to be forced to do something (patriotic) because the government says they must.”
We should all be nervous. Even if you disagree with athletes using anthem ceremonies to make a political point, you have to acknowledge the perils of the highest elected politician trying to silence protest by calling it unpatriotic and riling up his base.
In such a climate, overheated passions can lead to the suppression of civil liberties. Pappas’ principal, Karrie Sequeria, told the Woodland High School community that the teacher was put on leave because she was out of line.
“While teachers do retain certain First Amendment rights in their capacity as an instructor, such rights are limited by Education Code and case law,” she said. “Their personal, political or religious beliefs are not appropriately expressed at school or in the classroom. Instead, the appropriate and legal instructional role is one of neutral facilitator – one who facilitates student discussion and intelligent analysis of current events.”
OK, except that Pappas didn’t kneel in class. She knelt at a pep rally for homecoming, and the last time I checked, pep rallies are a world apart from classroom instruction. A civil rights lawyer said as much to The Bee’s Benjy Egel.
“Homecoming is not a part of the school curriculum,” said Michael Risher, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. “It’s essentially a social or spirit event, and that would certainly weigh in favor of her expressing her political views at that sort of event. ... I don’t think anyone would confuse her personal expression here with expressing the views of the school, and that matters in this context.”
It is true that First Amendment rights can be restricted for some employees depending on the workplace, the job, and any number of other factors. But the Woodland incident illustrates an employer acting on something other than rational reason. It would be fascinating to see Pappas’ case go to trial. There is a very good chance the court would find that her First Amendment rights were abused.
But why go after her at all in the first place? She put her hand over heart. She was surrounded by signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “It’s okay to disagree with any sign here.” One could argue she was doing what a teacher should do – she was making people think.
Trump, however, doesn’t want people to think. He wants them to follow. His messages seek to divide and condemn. His insistence that the NFL anthem protests are disrespectful to the flag and the military, along with being inflammatory, are simply inaccurate. NFL players are protesting police brutality. Police brutality is an undeniable issue in America today.
On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said players “should” stand for the anthem but would not commit to forcing them to do so. If he bowed to Trump, Goodell knows that some players would revolt. Some would walk out and rightly so. Trump, of course, took to Twitter to express his discontent, saying the decision “was total disrespect for our great country!”
By denying the protest and making it about something that it’s not, Trump is subverting a constitutional right and inviting others to disparage the spirit of the First Amendment. Kaepernick is effectively blackballed by the NFL. Brandon Marshall, a Denver Broncos player, lost an endorsement with the Air Academy Federal Credit Union for taking a knee during a recent game. A Denver area Ford dealership dropped Von Miller, Marshall’s Bronco teammate, for the same reason.
The discord has spilled into the stands. On Oct. 4, two Rancho Cucamonga men had soda poured on them at a Los Angeles Lakers exhibition game after they stayed in their seats during the national anthem. The young woman who threw her drink on them was caught on video saying: “Excuse me, this is for the national anthem, you pieces of sh*t.” The woman later was identified as a student at California Baptist University in Riverside. The college since has condemned her actions.
On Sept. 29, two Houston-area high school football players were kicked off their team because they raised their fists during the anthem. Their coach, a former Marine, took offense. He thought it was disrespectful to the flag, even though the intent of this protest has been stated clearly for more than a year.
There have been other incidents, too many to cite here. Some local team owners have told me privately that some fans – Sacramento-area fans – have called and told them that they would cancel their season tickets if they see people taking a knee at sporting events.
This is dangerous. This is wrong. This has to stop. Forced conformity is un-American, but with the help of the president, it continues to spread.