Republican senators issued a warning to the Tennessee public university system, urging them to stop student athletes from kneeling during the national anthem.
This happened after East Tennessee State University (ETSU) men’s basketball team knelt as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before a game against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on February 16.
ETSU President Brian Noland and Coach Jason Shay said that the team only wanted to spark discussions about racial inequalities and that it wasn’t meant to disrespect the US military and its sacrifice.
However, the Senate Republican Caucus viewed the matter entirely differently. They penned a letter to the university leaders of all Tennessee colleges and universities and warned them against allowing their students to engage in this form of protest.
“To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward,” read the letter which was signed by all 27 members of the senate caucus.
According to the senators, the national anthem is a representation of the ultimate sacrifice that US soldiers have made for the country to enjoy its freedom. So, the act of kneeling as the anthem plays is “offensive and disrespectful.”
I’m disappointed to see the ETSU basketball team take a knee during the national anthem. This is disrespectful to everyone who fought or died to protect our freedoms. We should stand proud with our hands on our hearts or saluting the flag during the anthem https://t.co/DufPtNLSVV— Diana Harshbarger (@DHarshbargerTN1) February 19, 2021
The Wrong Kind of Freedom of Speech?
On Monday, a joint committee meeting involving legislators and a member of the University of Tennessee’s general counsel discussed the issue.
Senator Janice Bowling remarked that she is not against students expressing their right to free speech on their own time. But when it comes to representing the school and the state then respect must be a priority.
Senator Rusty Crowe also questioned if the First Amendment includes student athletes who don uniforms because “they’re taking state money, they’re in our state schools, in our state uniforms.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie asked the committee what students can do to peacefully exercise their right to free expression.
“If we’re going to really try to not be divisive, what can we do to make people not want to kneel? What can we do to take that out of the equation? What is causing them to kneel in a peaceful protest?” the chairman asked the committee.
“So we can’t protest peacefully? We don’t protest violently. But you want to just hammer us down, or the students down, on every turn,” Dixie added.