“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In describing the First Amendment to the Constitution, our U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable. Both speech and petition are integral to the democratic process. … The right to petition allows citizens to express their ideas, hopes and concerns to their government and their elected representatives, whereas the right to speak fosters the public exchange of ideas that is integral to deliberative democracy as well as to the whole realm of ideas and human affairs.”
In recent days, there has been much consternation about whether it is disrespectful or inappropriate to kneel during the playing of our national anthem during sporting events. Interestingly, in 1943, the Supreme Court had to address a similar situation. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court decided that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected students from being forced to salute the American flag.
The justice who wrote the decision declared: “The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish, if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
Other justices professed: “… freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
These wise thoughts and words can be applied to each person whether they stand or kneel. After careful examination, all would probably agree that we live in a great country, full of freedom and opportunity! However, it’s a historical fact, for a long time, not all people were treated fairly or equally. And there’s still some work to be done. Thus, those that stand recognize the value, rights and benefits that our country offers and provides. Those that kneel do so in an effort to bring attention to areas of concern where the value, rights and benefits of our country are lacking in some respects to all of its citizens. Each may stand or kneel without being disrespectful to the other. Each may simply be expressing rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Perhaps if we looked for a solution, we’d all realize there is a virtue in standing and kneeling. But how can we resolve this apparent trepidation between beliefs and behavior?
What if there was a moment of silence before the playing of the national anthem? It would provide an opportunity for everyone to kneel, reflect, rejoice, pray, grieve or highlight grievances as they saw fit. When the music played, everyone could stand together in a sign that all are free and equal. We’d recognize our country is great, but not yet perfect, there’s still some work to do. For those who will be opposite, perhaps tolerance and compassion would be allowed because we accept that in our country we’ve “no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate” who we are as a people or nation.
There are ways to come together. And, as was so eloquently stated in the Barnette case: “Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest. Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws.”
The solution isn’t arguing about who’s right, but rather recognizing that nobody is wrong, and providing a platform that allows everyone to express their views. In this way, perhaps we can all live the ideals of the Constitution and make America even greater.
Judge Frank Sedillo presides over the civil division of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.