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St. Peter’s Peacocks players kneel during the national anthem on Dec. 11, 2020, in Jersey City, NJ. | Source: Icon Sportswire / Getty

Republicans in Tennessee are mad at a group of student-athletes for kneeling during the national anthem and want public universities and colleges to take action to prevent them from protesting.

The state senators have a selective concern about upholding American rights and values. Sen. Janice Bowling was quoted by the Tennessean as saying the First Amendment is “sacrosanct” and that she respected “heritage and history.” Sen. Mark Pody expressed concern about the protest happening and being paid for by the state. 

But Bowling and Pody, along with three other Republican state senators in Tennessee, signed on to a Jan. 5 letter opposing President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. In their official capacities, with salaries paid for by the state, these five senators wrote the Tennessee federal delegation, relying on debunked claims of alleged voter fraud, and other similar rhetoric that in part fueled the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

It seems that their respect for American institutions and people is dependent on whether they like the outcome. 

Intending to raise awareness around racial inequality, members of the men’s basketball team at East Tennessee State University took a knee during a game last week.

Head coach Jason Shay said that it was a decision made as a team and he’s glad it got people talking.

“This is the perfect time to continue to shed light on the racial issues facing our country,” Shay said in an interview last week.

In a letter to the leadership of several schools, Republican senators cited the anthem as a “symbol of pride for America” and ordered schools to prohibit such actions in the future.

The university system’s general counsel said that kneeling during the national anthem does not violate the student code of conduct. And the ACLU of Tennessee issued a statement calling any potential ban on student-athlete protest 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,” read the statement. “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.”

Republicans have a trifecta in Tennessee, with a veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate. Yet that didn’t stop members of the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus from releasing a statement supporting peaceful student protests. 

“Student organizing on college campuses is a perfect reflection of the American values embedded in our First Amendment,” read the statement. “Rather than silencing the voices of students who are peacefully bringing attention to injustice in our country, we should all be working together to address the inequities that brought them to a knee.”

Anoa Changa is a movement journalist and retired attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow Anoa on Instagram and Twitter @thewaywithanoa.


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