The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the “Bill of Rights”. Those amendments delineate the dimensions of the freedom that is the heritage of every American citizen. It is significant that the First Amendment is freedom of speech. Our founding fathers realized that freedom of speech is the bedrock of an open and free society.
It is clear that the drafters of the First Amendment intended to protect all citizens rights to dissent. Speech that agrees with the thinking of the mainstream does not require protection. No one would suppress statements which merely echo the dominant paradigm. The First Amendment protects the rights of a citizen, not only to march to a different drummer, but to publicly proclaim his or her position.
The 1960’s were violent, turbulent times. My career as a University Professor at California State University, Northridge began in 1965. Set in the San Fernando Valley, CSUN was in the heart of the student protests that marked those times. Particular events that stand out include the minority student protest that saw 32 black students frog-march the Athletic Director from the gym to the President’s office with a box-cutter at his throat. The President was off campus but the protesters occupied his office until a SWAT team freed the Athletic Director. I was more directly involved in the Kent State riot when a mob of students ripped open the door to my classroom where I was lecturing. When I attempted to close the door, three large students slammed the door with me still hanging on it, violently against the wall. I picked myself up, walked back into class and announced, “They want the door open.” I then quickly removed my tie and joined the back of the mob surging thru the halls and walked out of the building saying, “On strike, shut it down.”
The 1960’s saw two major expressions of protest which sought First Amendment protection. In both cases, the prevailing public opinion trampled on the protestor’s First Amendment rights.
The first was the “dirty words” protest at the University of California, Berkley. This was around 1964.There was a large student rally, gathered to hear the “dirty words” speeches. The speakers repeated over and over again the same largely anglo-saxon dirty words. The point was to point out that First Amendment protection extended to all speech, no matter how outrageous.
The reaction to this event in the media and most of the nation was negative. Expressions of outrage rocked the walls as the establishment busied itself setting rules which obliterated the entire concept of free speech.
By 1968, the Vietnam War had torn the nation’s student population apart. Modern scholars agree that Lyndon Johnson, MacNamara and the Joint Chiefs of staff were all lying to the students and the American public in general about the war. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Against the violent backdrop, the 1968 Olympic Games were held in Mexico City.
Harry Edwards, an outspoken black professor at San Jose State College advocated a black boycott of the Olympic games. The boycott never went anywhere but it did succeed in politicizing the Olympic games. Two black students from San Jose State won medals in the 200 meters. Tommie Smith won the gold and John Carlos the bronze. Historic photos of the medal ceremonies are still on the internet today. On the top step, Tommie Smith raised his right fist, clad in a black glove. On the bottom step, John Carlos raised his left fist, clad in a black glove. Peter Norman’s hands are at his side but he and the other two runners all wore human right’s medals pinned to their jackets. Peter Norman supported the American runner’s protest. Both Tommie Smith and John Carlos faced the American flag but their heads were down showing their disappointment in a nation that failed to treat all its resident’s equally, regardless of color.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black socks and no shoes to indicate their sympathy for the poor blacks of America.
Many “sports fans” were outraged that these negroes dared to use a sporting event for political purposes. This is a real giggle at the Olympics where each nation’s team marches in the opening ceremony displaying their flag. I guess the runner’s transgression was in showing that not all Americans are treated equally behind that flag. The runners were accused of making a “black power” statement. This perception of the event glosses over the fact that the symbol of black power is a raised, clenched “right” fist. John Carlos raised his left fist. In fact this was caused because when assembling their attire for the event, John Carlos forgot his black gloves. He was wearing Tommie Smith’s left glove.
Avery Brundage, the head of the International Olympic Committee was furious about the demonstration. He quickly established that the authority of the First Amendment to the American Constitution ends at the edge of the Olympic games. Brundage demanded that the American team expel the two offending athletes. He threatened to throw out the entire American team if his petulant demand was not heeded. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, medal winners, were expeled from the American team. Careful journalists pointed out that Avery Brundage permitted a similar demonstration by the Nazi athletes at the 1936 games in Berlin. Brundage breezily pointed out that the Nazi protest was a national one while the black athlete’s protest was dissent. Right.
Some commentators say Avery Brundage was a Nazi. I do not think the evidence proves that but it makes it clear that he did not support either minority rights or free speech.
Whenever there is some sort of political protest, some university professor is usually found in the middle, implicated up to his ears. The evidence is entirely circumstantial but some have pointed out that Harry Edwards was a Professor at San Jose State and that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were students at San Jose State.
This stroll down memory lane is necessary in order to place the actions of Colin Kaepernick in perspective. Colin Kaepernick exercised his First Amendment rights by failing to mirror the actions of his teammates during the national anthem. It only takes a single glance at the classic picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on that podium in 1968 to see that Colin Kaepernick’s actions were far less dramatic. If the gesture was less, the reaction was more. Millions of football fans burst into violent verbal abuse of Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick was accused of politicizing the great American game of football. Avery Brundage has left the scene but the 32 owners of the National Football League and their paid staff stand shoulder to shoulder condemning use of their game to call attention to a social wrong.
Mr. Mara, owner of a New York team, expressed his belief that someone would hire Colin Kaepernick. To hold a clipboard on the sidelines I assume. The fact remains that Colin Kaepernick remains un-hired while 32 teams ignore him. Colin Kaepernick’s punishment for his mild exercise of his First Amendment rights was swift and decisive. He lost his job. No one can convince me that there are 64 quarterbacks playing in the National Football League who are better than Colin Kaepernick. I have followed Colin Kaepernick’s career from his college days at the University of Nevada, Reno. I happen to have obtained my Master’s degree in Economic Theory at that same university.
The three First Amendment cases I have cited have a relatively small geometric footprint. The Dirty Words episode occurred at the University of California, Berkley. It is a short drive across San Francisco Bay to reach San Jose State where Tommie Smith and John Carlos studied. If one drives in the opposite direction from Berkley, through Donner Pass, you arrive at the University of Nevada, Reno.
It must be something in the water.
Professor Joe Launie is a Professor Emeritus of Risk Management at California State University, Northridge. His latest book is “The Road to the Ox Carts”, where he warns that continued abuse of the middle class by the government may lead to an insurrection.