R.A.C.E. event brings debate surrounding First Amendment and social justice to EC

Students discuss the state of race relations in the U.S. at a R.A.C.E event in the Melanchthon Room on Friday, Sept. 16. (Photo by Annie Williams)

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was called “the opposite of a threat” by participants in a sparsely attended discussion about the First Amendment and social justice in the Melanchthon Room on Sept. 16.

“What’s the most non-violent way to express protest?” asked Roger Moreano, director of intercultural student affairs. “It’s taking a knee.”

“[This is] the opposite of violence, the opposite of threats ... in fact, the only thing that appears to be threatened is the narrative of America being an open and inclusive place [where] everybody has opportunities [and] police are not abusing their powers,” he added.

Kaepernick was the first of several professional and collegiate athletes, including six EC football players, who recently refused to stand during the national anthem in protest of police brutality towards blacks and the state of race relations in the U.S.

The move was met with criticism from many who believe the method of protest is disrespectful to the anthem and what it stands for.

Moreano, who organized the event as part of a series of discussions titled Embracing R.A.C.E. (racial awareness and cultural education), explained at the hour-long discussion that the controversy arises when those who “do not believe this is an issue” criticize Kaepernick for his means of protest while those who support it say it is his right, citing the First Amendment.

“This issue is not centered on Colin Kaepernick,” he said. “It seems like folks who are upset with Kaepernick seem to be upset that he’s disrupting the narrative, he’s disrupting the tradition [and] he’s disrupting the ethos of what it means to be an American.”

“[They believe] you should be respectful always of the flag [and] of the anthem, and that if you have an issue with it you have to find an alternative means to protest ... But I want to ask this question: is free speech a vehicle to express the idea that I don’t feel free?”

Sophomore Areeba Mazhar believes that while the First Amendment is important in protecting the freedom of speech, it can sometimes be abused, rendering it problem- atic.

“I think free speech is flawed in theory and politicized in practice ... You can easily use the First Amendment to justify your criticizing or outright hateful attitudes towards other groups,” said Mazhar, who is Muslim.

“I’ve experienced hate speech before and people can easily say it’s [their] right to do so ... People can get away with so much just under [the guise of ] free speech.”

Other students believe that all speech — no matter how controversial it may seem — should be protected under the First Amendment.

“I’ve always felt, on any issue, that you don’t have to agree with someone but you need to be able to tolerate the rights that they have,” said freshman Kirsten Tendall, a staff member of The Leader.

“You don’t have to accept their beliefs, [or] change your mind [or] wholeheartedly agree with them. You don’t even have to consider their side. Just know that it’s their right, and everyone has that right,” she added.

Still, Mazhar believes allowing hateful speech to be protected under the First Amendment increases the potential for violent situations to emerge.

“I don’t feel like disagreement and hateful, threatening speech [are] the same thing. Why is it that because there’s no physical violence happening or people getting killed that it’s tolerable up until that point?” she said.

“Obviously violence doesn’t break out of nowhere — there are stepping stones to it. So if you’re allowing hate speech and if you’re allowing people to express their disagreement in the form of hateful speech, how are you even surprised when violence breaks out?”

In response to the argument that Kaepernick’s method of protest is inappropriate, EC alum Tom Ryan argued that there is no “right” time to protest.

“Something that is extremely frustrating is that sometimes it feels like there is no right time or right place to actually use your freedom of expression and to say something that is going to upset people or throw them off from the narrative that they’re comfortable with,” he said.

Ryan said the issue comes down to a matter of perspective where those who support the protest will view it differently than those who oppose it.

“I think people live in their own worlds, they don’t see discrimination going on around them, it doesn’t exist to them, [and] it’s not important to them,” he said.

“I think, too, it’s really easy for people in power to marginalize those who don’t have power. So it’s very easy to shout down someone who’s kneeling or sitting down when making a statement,” he added.

Moreano suggested one reason why race relations in the United States are a controversial topic is because the country is still reeling from a time of outright racism and discrimination.

“We’re only a couple generations removed from equality on paper ... we are the inheritors of a world that had structures put into place that were supposed to work for some folks and not work for others,” he said. “We’ve inherited that world, so whether we think it was long ago or not, the residual effects are still alive and well today.”