3 important free speech issues in higher education in 2019

3 important free speech issues in higher education in 2019

The number of headlines about the First Amendment — particularly about free speech issues — are seemingly endless nowadays, but what’s happening on college campuses, specifically, in 2019? Here are three major free speech issues to be aware of this year:

President Trump’s Comments on Free Speech in Higher Education

In a recent speech before the Conservative Political Action Committee, President Trump suggested he might sign an executive order to guarantee free speech protections on college and university campuses — and revoke funding for those institutions if they did not adequately protect every students’ freedoms, regardless of political affiliation.

An issue with this proposed order, a First Amendment rights lawyer explained, is that it could potentially allow the executive branch to unilaterally determine which campuses are pro or anti-free speech. In other words, this executive order could allow the president to pick and choose which colleges and universities should lose funding over free speech issues on their campuses, while others may fly under the radar if the president doesn’t deem their offenses serious enough to warrant a review and possible revocation of federal funds.

Pledge of Allegiance

In the past few years, there have been plenty of controversies surrounding the national anthem. In 2019, the Pledge of Allegiance is back in the news, after a California community college’s Board of Trustees removed the Pledge from its regular proceedings due to what the board’s president described as “reasons relating to its history and symbolism.”

The school was inundated with calls, mail and electronic messages allegedly threatening the Board and the school for its removal of the Pledge of Allegiance. In a late January Board of Trustees meeting, one of the members recited the pledge while holding a small American flag, only to be drowned out by vocal protesters. In another Board meeting just two weeks later, the Board voted to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance for its regular meetings once again.

Limited Academic Freedom for Adjunct Faculty

A final (ongoing) issue affecting higher educational institutions in 2019 is the adjunct faculty crisis. Adjunct faculty members are paid less (with no benefits) and have substantially less job security than their tenured counterparts (adjuncts can teach multiple classes one semester then find out there are no available classes for them the following semester). Due to this lack of job security, adjuncts are constantly on edge about what they can and cannot say in the classroom, to colleagues, and/or in committee and departmental meetings.

This is arguably an implicit violation of adjunct instructors’ First Amendment rights, as nobody is outwardly telling them what they can and cannot say. Rather, they can be penalized for any unwelcome speech by not having their teaching contracts renewed for another semester. This means that job security is an essential issue for non-tenured faculty in 2019 because it is key to protecting their free speech rights in the classroom and on campus.

Are protests effective tools for political/social change anymore?

Are protests effective tools for political/social change anymore?

A raised fist of a protestor at a political demonstrationEveryone knows about freedom of speech, the press and religion in the First Amendment, but surveys have shown that a majority of Americans either don’t know or forget that the freedom to petition and to peacefully assemble are also included in the First Amendment. While “peaceful assembly” may refer to public congregations of individuals for any reason, public protests are most commonly associated with our freedom to assemble.

In an era of online petitions, digital boycotts of companies, and other forms of cyber-activism, are public protests still effective when it comes to changing social beliefs or political systems? As this opinion piece at Ideas.TED.com points out, there are plenty of ways to build a successful social movement, and you might be surprised to learn just how successful some protests are these days.

Increasing Public Awareness

Thanks to the Internet, we’ve come a long way from the 1960s and 1970s protests against the Vietnam War, which didn’t necessarily end the war but did transform public opinions about the war. Nowadays, we still see small-scale, local protests and large marches, but we’re also witnessing globalized movements on an unprecedented scale.

Take the March 15, 2019, global student strike for climate change: started by a 16-year-old Swedish girl, the student walkout encompassed more than 990 schools across 90+ countries, largely thanks to social media organizing. The purpose behind the strike was to generate greater public awareness (and concern) for climate change, which teenagers and young adults say will negatively impact them the most because they will be on Earth for decades longer than their parents and grandparents’ generations.

Organization, Messaging & Nonviolence

Research conducted by The Washington Post journalists found that successful protests typically share 3 traits: they’re well-organized, they have an appealing message, and they do not resort to violence.

On the issue of organization, it’s important that prominent organizers of a protest or movement share similar ideals and goals to avoid dividing their cause into separate factions. An example of this is the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project in 2016. The protests were largely organized by social media-savvy young adults and their communities, which helped them centralize their platform and ultimately persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a construction permit to the would-be pipeline builders (that decision was later reversed under the Trump Administration and lawsuits remain to this day).

On the issue of messaging, a protest’s message(s) should resonate with a wide range of people, beyond just those directly involved in the protest itself. An example of this would be the recent teacher strikes around the United States, which started over concerns related to low pay, overcrowded classes, few classroom resources, and limited support from administrators and districts. Since a majority of Americans attended public schools when they were younger and millions more want the same high-quality educational opportunities for their own children, the messages underlying the teachers’ strikes resonated with a massive audience.

On the issue of nonviolence, successful protests are able to maintain public support by encouraging participants to refrain from violence, verbal harassment, and other socially unacceptable forms of expression. An example of this would be the “lactivist” protests at Applebee’s in 2007, in which breastfeeding mothers protested against the restaurant’s discriminatory policies (making women breastfeed their infants in a restroom stall, when most states have already legalized public breastfeeding). This nonviolent display of protest ultimately led Applebee’s to issue a statement that it would be more welcoming of nursing mothers in the future.

Are Protests Really Effective?

Many protests start out strong then fizzle out due to a variety of intergroup or situational issues, but at the end of the day, it’s not always about whether protests are effective or ineffective. Instead, we should remember that peaceful protests are part of our Constitutionally-guaranteed First Amendment rights, and protecting those rights is something we should all agree on.

Should restaurants be protected by the First Amendment?

Should restaurants be protected by the First Amendment?

Airplane near the terminal in an airport at the sunsetChick-Fil-A seems to come up in national news headlines every couple years or so, and 2019 is no different. Two cities recently prohibited Chick-Fil-A from operating in their airports on the basis of what they claim are discriminatory stances the company has taken in its policies and corporate donations. Let’s explore the issue further to see which side might hold more weight in the courtroom:

Background

As with any major controversy, there are at least two sides to the story. On one hand, ThinkProgress uncovered financial reports that found Chick-fil-a donated at least $1.8 million to nonprofits with anti-LGBT beliefs and/or policies in 2017. This support of anti-LGBT groups has prompted local government councils in San Antonio, TX and Buffalo, NY to deny or revoke approval to open locations in their airport terminals on the basis of Chick-Fil-A’s alleged support of discriminatory nonprofit organizations.

On the other hand, the decisions by government entities to deny Chick-Fil-A the ability to operate at government-regulated airports may contradict First Amendment protections. As of April, the Texas Attorney General’s office is now investigating San Antonio’s decision.

Free Speech for Corporations

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission granted some free speech protections to corporations (also commonly referenced as “corporate personhood”). Under this line of logic, Chick-Fil-A should be free to donate to whichever groups it wants without retribution from the government.

In the case of Chick-Fil-A’s operating permit being revoked in Buffalo, NY, even the progressive American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is siding with Chick-Fil-A in the dispute. As the NYCLU Assistant Director for Legislative Affairs Erika Lorshbough said, “government actors cannot officially silence speech or take punitive actions based on a person’s or private entity’s political viewpoints.”

The debate over corporate personhood and the clash between progressive/conservative government entities and their conservative/progressive challengers will remain important First Amendment issues for many years to come. In the meantime, what do you think? Should restaurants be free to operate wherever they want, or should government be able to bar those that support causes the governmen rejects?

April 2019 Newsletter

April 2019 Newsletter

Back in September at the 3rd Annual First Amendment Voice National Symposium in Philadelphia, I met Gary Ell. Gary got inspired during our programming and wanted to get involved. He wasn’t sure how, but after some thought, he had an idea. Here is the story in his own words:

The world has become vehemently divided. Nearly every segment of society has been afflicted through division. We are divided by culture, gender, education, race, religion and political polarization that hinders governance. The 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections created a funnel that has encapsulated the USA and left me feeling divided, exhausted and fearful. As a Professional Photojournalist “sometimes” covering politics, my social media accounts were targeted and trolled. I shared an image on Facebook of my 10 y/o daughter holding a Hillary sign during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She was so excited to attend the event and show her support of “Girl Power” as many young girls did. I taught my daughter that she can dream big and achieve great things. She believed in this candidate. The trolls did not! She was lambasted for holding that sign and believing in this female candidate. I was deeply disturbed and disgusted. This was my first-hand account of where society was spiraling.

A fire was ignited when I attended the First Amendment Voice Symposium in Philadelphia, P.A. in September 2018. FAV is a non-profit that serves to invigorate citizens to understand and exercise first amendment rights through a collaborative campaign of education and advocacy. I left the symposium feeling a need to “help” society. As a Photographer and Curator for a popular photography hub on Instagram, I had a voice and a platform. By unifying with six other popular photo hubs, we had a combined following of several million followers. We all were in agreement that we have a responsibility as Artists to address the important issues that are dividing the world and solve them visually. We felt that the theme of Unity/Division could help heal a deeply divided society, so we launched the challenge in January 2019.

What did we learn?
The submissions addressed the divisions more than the unity and that was ok. The challenge was like the current pulse of humanity and we don’t necessarily have the answers. It’s like what people feel right now; divided, alone and afraid. We tapped into something, a need that people feel they have to express. That’s what the challenge was about – Encouraging people to conquer the fear of expression or the feeling that their voice doesn’t matter.

Gary exemplifies the effect we try to have with FAV programming. We seek speakers and community leaders who inspire us all to #FindOurVoice and contribute to the public conversation, whether through art, like Gary, or by the multitude of other ways to contribute – the school board, PTA, university, church, synagogue, mosque, city council meeting, and other community organizations. We each have individual talents and a unique “voice.” Our form of government requires citizen participation. If you would like to learn more and feel inspired by Gary’s effort, join FAV in Washington, D.C. this September. Our 4th Annual National Symposium will feature the five winning submissions from Gary’s Instagram contest. Gary will provide an overview of the contest and some of the photographers will attend in person.

Citizenship is not a spectator sport! If you like our newsletter, please share with a friend!

Steve

Coffee Talk Shout-out

Thank you to everyone from Coronado and San Clemente Coffee Talks who recently signed up for our newsletter. We plan to continue to provide relevant programming that interests community members. We will offer national-level videoconference Coffee Talks in the future to paid members and delegates who would like to learn how to start a coffee talk program in their communities.

In The News

Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote the following op-ed in the New York Times. Recent coffee talk attendees have enjoyed discussion of the ideas he presents. Enjoy! READ NOW

Mark Your Calendars

May 10th — Global LA Summit w/ Pacific Council on International Policy

May 11th — Difficult Conversations workshop w/ Kern Beare, LA

September 13-14th — the 4th Annual FAV National Symposium, Washington, D.C.

Does the First Amendment protect everything you post on social media?

Does the First Amendment protect everything you post on social media?

55224217_MThe Internet is often a chaotic and relatively unregulated public sphere, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can say or post anything you want without consequences. Although our public officials have been debating the extent to which the government can regulate speech and expression online for years, there remains a lot of vagueness surrounding First Amendment protections online, particularly when it comes to social media.

There have been multiple legal cases involving social media posts however, so at least there are judicial precedents from which we can reasonably determine what speech is protected by the First Amendment and what speech would be considered illegal. Here are a few situations in which the right to freedom of expression isn’t as absolute as you might think:

Violating the Terms & Conditions for Users

People often forget that the First Amendment only protects individuals against government censorship or punishment of their speech. This does not mean that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram or other social sites are required by law to allow any and all expressions by users on their platforms. By agreeing to the site’s terms and conditions during the sign-up process, users are consenting to abide by each platform’s unique rules and if someone is banned for violating these rules, then that doesn’t necessarily constitute a First Amendment violation.

Furthermore while these social platforms are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the current regulations are woefully out-of-date. Perhaps some of the terms and conditions are unfair to users, but until the FCC re-examines its own regulations for social networking sites, the issue of possible First Amendment rights violations will remain up for debate.

Incriminating Information

Did you know that people have been arrested for what they posted on social media? Regardless of whether you’re serious or joking, law enforcement generally treats online threats similarly to verbal threats uttered offline and even threatening emojis can be used as warrants for arrest. Social media users also have been arrested for admitting to hit-and-runs in posts on their personal profiles, as well as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If you think it’s just basic common sense to know what to post and what not to post on social media, then you might be surprised to learn that one teenager took a selfie with the corpse of a friend he had killed and posted it on SnapChat. Obviously this is an extreme example, but other, lesser criminal offenses brought to light by social media demonstrate the necessity of developing our digital literacy skills and being mindful of legal constraints when posting on social media.

Fired Because of a Social Media Post

As noted previously, the First Amendment primarily protects individuals against the government infringing on their rights to freedom of speech and expression. Since private sector employers are exempt from this (and many employees nowadays are considered “at-will”), this means you could potentially get fired for what you post on social media, even if it’s not illegal.

There are plenty of stories about people who got fired over social media posts, and few wrongful termination lawsuits filed by these folks have been successful in court. This is why it’s important not just to understand what’s legal and illegal on social media, but also what your employer’s social media guidelines are.

March 2019 Newsletter

March 2019 Newsletter

Reflections on our first amendment freedoms in a foreign country

As I prepare to leave Amman, following a fruitful visit writing some final thoughts in a forthcoming book, visiting a friend, and seeing nonprofit field operations in action, I paused to reflect on the current state of discourse in our country. We live in a partisan environment where identity politics overrules civility to our fellow human being, where students have begun to mobilize against what they deem as older generational failure to address existential threats (climate change, student debt, post-college employment, the national debt, racism, gun violence and more), where more people have begun tuning out network news (on the right and left), where fear and apathy push voices out of the public square, but where many civic organizations and leaders encourage people to constructively contribute to important conversations in their communities.

Jordan has many more refugees and challenges of immigration than the United States. The vast majority of people inside its borders do not have equal rights. Few believe they can express their fears and be heard. Jordanians blame Iraqis for having spiked rents, and other prices more generally, during the waves of displacement that occurred during the conflict in Iraq. Palestinians feel they will never hold the same job prospects as their Jordanian countrymen, even though many have been here for fifty years. The freedom to assemble and petition the government for grievance pales next to the vibrancy in the United States, yet you would never know comparing the atmosphere here.

Jordan is a model of stability for the region. Jordanians go about their everyday lives. Many have significant grievances. I spent time interacting with nonprofits dealing in the refugee space, learning about the extreme biases and challenges that refugees face. They are not allowed to work. Many can’t afford to put their children through school. They spend their time agonizing over basic necessities, Maslow’s hygiene needs at the lowest level of the hierarchy.

Contrast the relative calm in Jordan to the tumultuous climate in the United States, and I believe it comes from a vibrant citizenry, not only aware of its rights but freely exercising them. A substantial portion of the population has awakened to the threat of losing their rights, whether freely practicing their religion, stating their beliefs, or other means of expression. The very tenor and clamor of expression in the U.S. leads me to assess that citizens and institutions are pushing back against perceived threats. It may be messy. It may sound noisy and shrill, but it may just exhibit the traits of those fundamental rights, granted by a Creator, freely expressed by individuals against perceived state infringements or ineptitude.

So, as much as I am an introvert by nature and need quiet and solitude to recharge my batteries, I take heart from the noise. I see leaders stepping up to start blog conversations, leading coffee talk discussion groups, and engaging their civic institutions to ensure their voices are heard. I may continue to seek my news from late night comedy or podcasts, but I’ll laugh at the comedy while reveling in the idea that democracy lives in the United States, practiced by its people and institutions on a daily basis. That’s a nice thought to come home to, in addition to rejoining my family after some time apart.

Citizenship is not a spectator sport! If you like our newsletter, please share with a friend!

Steve

VOTE now in the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest

Do you want to help students attend the next National Symposium in September? Please vote to help FAV sponsor students this year. SLC supports student involvement in citizenship and professional research opportunities. Be a part of helping young men and women learn more about their country and be involved in meaningful engagement in their communities.

Mark Your Calendars

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May 11th – Difficult Conversations workshop w/ Kern Beare, LA

Three reasons why the Founding Fathers wouldn’t be surprised by our current political climate

Three reasons why the Founding Fathers wouldn’t be surprised by our current political climate

35076816_MIn today’s hyper-polarized political climate, you oftentimes hear people bemoan what our Founding Fathers would think if they came back to see what had become of the U.S. two centuries later. However, a quick glimpse at history reveals several parallels between the late 1700s and the early 2000s of today:

Treason Accusations

Former acting director of the FBI recently revealed that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein considered invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Donald Trump from the office of the presidency on the basis of being “unable to discharge” his duties as Commander-in-Chief.

This revelation led Trump to respond on Twitter:

“The biggest abuse of power and corruption scandal in our history, and it’s much worse than we thought. Andrew McCabe (FBI) admitted to plotting a coup (government overthrow) when he was serving in the FBI, before he was fired for lying & leaking.” @seanhannity @FoxNews Treason!

Regardless of whether McCabe’s statement and previously intended-but-not-taken actions constitute treason, the Founding Fathers wouldn’t be too surprised by the latest political brawl because it happened so many times in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The original Alien and Sedition Acts themselves were so poorly phrased that almost anything could be labeled treasonous, and the Sedition Act of 1918 (which was really just an amendment to the Espionage Act) vaguely prevented any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” towards the U.S. government, flag or armed forces.

“Fake News”

As the Smithsonian points out, “fake news” rhetoric has been around since America was born – it just wasn’t called “fake news” back then. A notable example from the Founding Fathers’ time would be the Aurora, published and run by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Bache. Based in Philadelphia, the Aurora frequently printed articles lambasting and harshly criticizing President Adams, who grew to dislike the notion of a free press, stating, “there has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798.”

Nowadays, things haven’t improved much. We still have actual fake news spreading misinformation to millions of people online, as well as “fake news” rhetoric utilized by politicians to discredit news stories and/or media outlets publishing information that they, their parties and supporters dislike or disagree with. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools and organizations (like First Amendment Voice) to protect the public against waves of misinformation while simultaneously upholding our vital First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Wealthy-Backed Media

In the 1700s and early 1800s, it wasn’t uncommon for wealthy political figures to fund (secretly or publicly) journalists and publications that supported their political views. For example, Thomas Jefferson was known to privately fund journalists like James Callender, who aggressively supported political agendas Jefferson believed in (anti-Federalist).

Nowadays, prominent, ultra-wealthy individuals like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (owner of The Washington Post) and Roger Ailes (1940-2017; Chairman and CEO of Fox News) likely have considerable influence over the press, though media organizations strive to maintain objectivity in their reporting as much as possible.

All in all, you might be surprised to see just how similar our First Amendment-related concerns are to the concerns of our Founding Fathers’ generation, back when the First Amendment was first established. This doesn’t mean we should give up and assume we’re doomed to repeat history, of course. Visit our donations page to help us fight for all Americans’ First Amendment freedoms today.

Freedom of assembly: What is it and why should citizens care about this right?

Freedom of assembly: What is it and why should citizens care about this right?

11092727 - demonstration with signs and tents occupying chicago downtown.When you think of the First Amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press typically come to mind. By comparison, the freedoms to petition and peacefully assemble are frequently forgotten by American citizens asked about their First Amendment rights in surveys and informal polls. Why is that?

There is a long, complicated history behind our Constitutional right to peacefully assemble, but it’s not as well known as some of the other freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment because this is something that may not directly affect us on a daily basis. While many people assume this simply refers to the unrestricted right to protest, the reality is actually much more complex than you might think.

As the Library of Congress points out, the government cannot prohibit its citizens from congregating in public spaces, whether that entails participation in protests and marches or attending public meetings. Over time, this right has bolstered public marches, rallies, and student protests.

Nowadays, the freedom to peacefully protest is closely intertwined with our rights to freedom of speech and even freedom of religion in some cases. For instance, citizens are able to collectively amplify their voices and potentially spark socio-political change in ways that simply wouldn’t be possible if we were forced to articulate our opinions and ideas in isolation from other people who may be receptive to them.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the right to peaceful assembly is not absolute, nor is it easy to interpret under the law. There have been several legal challenges related to the question of what constitutes a “peaceful” protest, and which types of assembly may be considered dangerous, threatening, or chaotic. This is why many protest organizers need to acquire permits before a protest may take place in public. That can help the local/state/federal government to adequately prepare for a larger-than-usual public presence and properly secure the area with law enforcement, in cases of conflict between protestors and counter-protestors.

Additionally, the government may limit when and where a protest or rally may be held for the purpose of minimizing disruptions to public life. For instance, a loud, chaotic protest that clogs the streets during rush hour in a large urban area may not meet the criteria for a “peaceful” form of assembly.

Although you may not think about your right to peaceful assembly as much as you’re aware of the freedoms to speak freely and practice any religion you choose, it’s nevertheless an important right that all Americans ought to remember when it comes to the First Amendment.

Freedom of religion and tax exemption status, explained

Freedom of religion and tax exemption status, explained

26346951_MWhat’s the definition of religion? While your first response may be something like “a belief in a god,” the answer is much more complicated when it comes to freedom of religion protections and churches’ tax-exemption statuses in the U.S. In other words, the actual definition of religion (a system of faith and worship) is so broad that almost anything could technically be considered a “religion,” rather than limiting it to the major faith systems of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.

Regardless of your own religious or nonreligious beliefs, have you ever wondered why churches receive tax-exemption status in the U.S. and what organizations qualify for it, per the IRS guidelines? Here’s a brief overview of the current interplay between religion and taxation in the United States:

Tax-Exemption for Religious Institutions

IRS regulations pertaining to churches and religious organizations fall under the umbrella of 501(c)(3). This means these groups are exempt from having to pay local, state and federal taxes, which could add $83.5 billion to government revenues in the U.S. if churches were required to pay taxes on donations and other forms of income.

Churches also do not have to file Form 990, which other charities are required to fill out to remain transparent about their donations and financial statements.

Pushing the Boundaries?

What is the bright line between a regular tax-exempt church and something that operates similarly to a church but doesn’t seem to be a traditional religious institution? For example, the First Church of Cannabis – which considers marijuana to be a sacrament that heals suffering and brings people closer together – was granted tax-exemption status by the IRS in 2015. Meanwhile the ever-controversial organization of Scientology is considered tax-exempt, though it has lost its exemption in the past and might lose it again in the future.

Then there’s the story of a Florida “church” called The Life Center that turned out to be a rowdy nightclub (which lost its local tax-exempt status but maintained its state tax-exemption for some time). With these major examples of non-traditional notions of what it means to be a religious organization, how does the IRS decide whether or not to grant tax-exemption without demonstrating bias in favor or against certain so-called religious groups?

Legitimacy Issues and the First Amendment

As Forbes pointed out, the IRS typically examines the following factors to decide if a church should be granted tax-exemption status:

“Distinct legal existence; Recognized creed and form of worship; Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government; Formal code of doctrine and discipline; Distinct religious history; Membership not associated with any other church or denomination; Organization of ordained ministers; Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed study; Literature of its own; Established places of worship; Regular congregations; Regular religious services; Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and Schools for preparing its members.”

The problem here is that the Constitution’s freedom of religion guarantees in the First Amendment make it difficult for the government to classify some religious groups as legitimate while denying other groups’ legitimacy. Moving forward, what should the IRS do? Should they adhere to the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantees by approving tax exemptions for unusual organizations that claim to be religions? Or should they revoke tax-exemption status for all churches in the U.S. to improve fairness among all religious organizations?

How does the First Amendment apply in the world of sports?

How does the First Amendment apply in the world of sports?

Coach explaining game plan to basketball playersColin Kaepernick may have sparked the debate over professional athletes’ access to freedom of speech and expression protections, but controversies about athletes and First Amendment rights involve so much more than kneeling during the national anthem.

Whether you enjoy playing sports or watching sports, here’s a brief overview of the state of First Amendment rights for fans and players in the American sporting industry:

Major League Player Protests

As ESPN points out, there is no universal policy among major sports leagues when it comes to players’ conduct during the national anthem. While the new NFL policy that players and coaches must stand during the national anthem mirrors NBA and WNBA policies, the MLB and NCAA have no official policies on the matter. The NHL’s Player’s Association even went as far as explicitly confirming support for players who would like to engage in “peaceful protest” during the national anthem. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer reportedly “encourages” players to stand during the national anthem, but it does not require them to do so.

If the First Amendment primarily protects citizens against any wrongful infringement on their speech/expression by the government, should it also protect professional players that work for nongovernmental sports organizations? The debate will likely continue for many years to come.

Paid Sponsorships for College Athletic Departments

College sports are already under fire for not paying their players (beyond covering tuition/fees in most cases), while their events make millions of dollars thanks to these hard-working student-athletes. Another issue confronting college athletic departments these days is paid sponsorships, which involves corporations sponsoring college teams by offering funds, gear and other incentives in exchange for advertising opportunities.

Since public university athletic directors are technically government employees, this raises the issue of potential First Amendment violations when a director accepts some corporate sponsorships while rejecting others. Should athletic departments be able to freely deny certain corporate sponsorships and accept others, or does this represent a Constitutional violation? Experts are still divided, so this will also remain a hotly contested issue in the world of college sports for the indefinite future.

Fan Heckling = Protected Speech?

A relatively newer phenomenon related to the First Amendment and sporting events is fan heckling. In 2018, New York Giants fans were ousted and arrested for heckling, which led them to sue, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated.

In the international arena, fan heckling has typically resulted in monetary penalties for teams, such as FIFA fining Mexico in the 2018 World Cup after Mexico’s fans repeatedly hurled homophobic slurs at the goalie during their match against Germany. But when it comes to American sports – where legal jurisdiction is also more clear-cut than simply letting FIFA handle matters – should fans be penalized for heckling and poor conduct, or is this merely disrespectful behavior that should nevertheless be protected by the First Amendment?