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Professional athletes have the right to express their opinion, just like every other American

Jun 22, 2023 by David Voorman

American democracy cannot thrive when its citizens feel stifled

In baseball, a relief pitcher will take over for the starting pitcher. This week, we could say that my colleague David Voorman is my relief pitcher (not my designated hitter – because, as David agrees, those shouldn’t exist). David is a fellow attorney and a senior policy analyst at AFP – an expert on free speech in policy at both the state and federal levels. I’m excited to share this space with him today.   

– Casey 

My thanks to Casey for providing me this chance to dive into the free speech rights I’m passionate about, including protest rights, self-censorship, and cancel culture. 

Let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick and Anthony Bass. 

The first name is familiar to most people. Kaepernick was an NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. In 2016, when he refused to stand for the playing of the national anthem to protest police shootings, he faced backlash from fans and even other players who “assumed he hated America,” as former NFL player and U.S. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer put it. Kaepernick explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

After the 2016 season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract, was released by the 49ers, and has not played professional football since. 

You may not know the second name. 

Anthony Bass is an MLB relief pitcher who most recently played for the Toronto Blue Jays until he was “designated for assignment” (MLB speak for being let go) on June 9. The news came after Bass had shared a video on social media calling for boycotts of Target and Bud Light in lieu of their recent LGBTQ+ marketing and merchandise.

It remains to be seen if Bass will play professional baseball again; as of this newsletter, he remains unsigned. 

In case any NHL fans were feeling left out, the NHL dealt with similar debates earlier this spring when athletes on multiple teams opted out of wearing warm-up jerseys displaying the Pride flag. Some players cited objections to wearing them for religious reasons. In response, some NHL teams decided to do away with their planned Pride Night, invoking both praise and derision from fans. 

Regardless of how one feels about the individual issues, these scenarios are a good reminder of the importance of protecting free speech. 

Now, the NFL, MLB, and respective teams and owners are well within their rights to cut players for whatever reason they deem fit. The First Amendment constrains government, not professional sports franchises.  

But these stories aren’t illustrative of legal speech rights. They’re about business, community, and online intimidation — a concerning culture that’s driving more and more Americans to stay silent rather than speak out.  

The reason they stand out is because Bass, Kaepernick, and others are going against the grain. In a moment characterized by cancel culture, they’re still deciding to share their beliefs. And we should celebrate that speech, regardless of one’s chosen profession. 

People will undoubtedly agree or disagree, but when we foster a culture of self-censorship, we all suffer. 

In other news… 

Earlier this month, law enforcement in Pennsylvania arrested a Christian “street preacher” while he was protesting a Pride event. The charges for “disorderly conduct, engaged in fighting” were dropped. The District Attorney’s office didn’t explain further, simply stating “charges were withdrawn after the District Attorney’s Office reviewed the videos of the incident along with applicable case law.” A video taken of the incident and posted on YouTube doesn’t support any accusation that the man was “engaged in fighting” or doing anything other than lawfully protesting. 

The same week in June, news broke of a lawsuit challenging a recently signed Mississippi law. A portion of that law requires “written approval… before any event occurs which will take place on any street or sidewalk immediately adjacent to any building or property owned or occupied by an official, agency, board, commission, office or other entity of the State of Mississippi…” What is an event? How is anyone to know whether a building is occupied by an official? Would this apply to college Saturday football? 

These stories may seem randomly selected, but they are linked.  

When government passes vague statutes that allow police to arrest protestors, it chills speech. Even if the charges are dropped, like in the case in Pennsylvania, the act of being arrested is still disruptive.  

If the choice is between exercising your First Amendment rights or facing arrest and possible charges, it’s not hard to see most people staying home. 

When this happens, we lose not only our rights to speak, but also our right to hear opposing viewpoints. 

I hope you enjoyed this POV from my colleague David. If you’d like to dive in further about cancel culture, last year I wrote about a survey revealing that one in four Americans fears “cancel culture” could risk their job or education. 

I’ll have more guest writers featured in this spot this summer, so stay tuned! And you can reach out with any questions or concerns whether about these specific situations or free speech in general by emailing freespeech@afphq.org.

– Casey 

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