On September 24, Milo Smith took his daughter to an Indianapolis Colts’ game against the Cleveland Browns. Though the Colts won that day — a tragically rare occurrence this year — Smith left the game offended. During the national anthem, a group of players on both teams took a knee in reaction to President Trump’s comments two days earlier, where he called protesting players sons of bitches who should be fired by team ownership.
"To me when they take a knee during the national anthem, it’s not respecting the national anthem or our country,” Smith told the Indianapolis Star newspaper. “Our government isn’t perfect, but it's still the best country in the world and I think we need to be respectful of it."
But Smith isn’t just an ordinary Colts' fan. He’s a state representative, and he couldn’t sit idly by while the Colts players knelt during the Star-Spangled Banner. Instead, he’s promised to introduce legislation that would force the team to refund the ticket price to any fan offended by a Colts player protesting during the national anthem.
If passed, however, that law would be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
I, too, attended that Colts game in September with my daughter. When Colts players kneeled during the national anthem, we and many others understood them to be protesting our nation’s systemic racism that manifests in violent and soul-crushing ways. Such protests are undeniably political speech, and political speech is our most protected and important form of expression.
But Rep. Smith doesn’t seem to get this. Instead, his proposed law is an absurd assault on the First Amendment because it tackles, if you will, political speech of the players by exerting economic pressure on their employer, the Indianapolis Colts. The First Amendment protects each of us from government controlling what we say, and it certainly protects businesses and their employees from government regulation that seeks to discourage speech based on its content.
And make no mistake, that is Rep. Smith’s intent.
Since he doesn’t like the message the players are sending with their silent protest, he wants to use the power of government to apply pressure to shut the protests down. What’s next? Regulatory fines instead of piano music for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when actors go on too long about politics during their Oscar acceptance speeches?
The Colts are a private business. The players work for a private business. And the fans support that private business. If fans are upset, let them work it out with their team by refusing to purchase tickets or watch on TV. That is, by the way, how some of the 44 million viewers of Oscars expressed their disagreement when things got political at last year’s Oscars. According to one poll, two-thirds of Trump voters just changed the channel.
If Rep. Smith and others like him don’t like watching players peacefully protest racial injustice, then they should simply stop going to and watching Colts’ games. Government, however, should stay out of it.