This plainly addled nation obviously needs a primer on its most precious tenet, which is freedom, specifically of speech, or expression generally.
The Q-and-A format is often effective, so let’s use it.
Q: What does American freedom of speech mean, exactly?
A: Like everything else in our U.S. Constitution, it means in real-life contemporary application whatever our courts say it means.
But, that moving target of interpretation aside, the glorious First Amendment has consistently meant that American citizens may express themselves as they wish without being sanctioned or punished by the government.
That’s the case if the expression does not harm another’s person or property and thus fall into areas defined as criminal or civil wrongs by statute.
A pro football player may kneel in protest on the sideline during the playing of the national anthem because his action hurts no person or property and there is no law forbidding it. But if he scores a touchdown, and, to express himself in celebration, drops his football trousers and exposes himself to end-zone spectators, then he almost assuredly will be detained by authorities because of statutes covering indecent exposure.
If he is a stage actor performing nude in a play, that’s different. It’s artistic expression instead of public indecency. People went to see the play consentingly with an expectation of experiencing art. Children and grandmothers do not go to pro football games with an expectation of end-zone flashing.
If, during the pre-game national anthem, a pro football player set fire to an American flag on the sideline, he would be engaging in protected speech, except that, more likely, he would be violating the fire code. He would be sanctioned, and his fire would be extinguished.
Q: But your employer may limit your speech, can’t he?
A: Sure. Of course. The Constitution’s sole objective is freedom from the government. A private employer is fully entitled to define conduct or expression unsuitable for employees.
If I were to write that some state politician should go bleep himself, and do so without using bleep but the actual four-letter vulgarity — and if the transgression should get past the editor and into publication — then neither I nor the editor would be in any criminal or civil trouble with the government. But the editor could well be fired and I could well be found in violation of the provision of my contract that directs me to conduct my work in a way that reflects well on the company.
The National Football League may define and impose rules on players’ behavior — not merely on the field, but off. Yes, off — away from the workplace.
For example, this newspaper could cancel my contract if I got arrested for, oh, assault and battery — of, say, a tennis opponent who just made a line call I didn’t like. I think. Maybe.
Q: OK, but isn’t it different — or shouldn’t it be different — when it comes to respecting national symbols, like the flag or the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance? Shouldn’t we be obligated as citizens to honor those symbols and be ever-respectful of them?
A: In a word, no. Decorum and love of country compel most of us to honor those symbols. But requiring citizens to engage in physical demonstrations of allegiance to symbols — that’s not free at all, but fascist.
Think about the contradiction of commanding citizens to honor their freedom by saluting the symbols the government damned well tells them to salute.
But let’s say I speak at a luncheon meeting of the Hooterville Kiwanis Club. And let’s say that, as the club membership rises to open the meeting with the standard pledge of allegiance to the flag, I stay seated in my head-table chair with my mouth shut.
The sheriff may not arrest me for anything. But if word of my affront gets back to the publisher, as I’m rather certain it would, then he’ll have a decision to make. If he moves to terminate my contract, I might go see a lawyer and discuss my options. I’d probably not have many.
Q: Is there anything wrong with the president of the United States declaring in a speech that he wishes an employer — in this case the NFL — would fire certain employees for certain otherwise protected behavior?
A: That’s a political question. The president is guilty of no constitutional or legal infraction. He has free speech, too. But many argue — and I so argue — that it is bad form for a president to use the imprimatur of his office to seek to influence, or appear to seek to influence, a matter of private employment.
Q: But — and this is the big one— haven’t our brave soldiers fought and died in wars to protect our freedom, and aren’t those who snub the flag and the anthem showing intolerable disrespect for those who have fought and died?
A: Here, in the interest of caution, I will reduce my typing speed.
To be utterly precise, our brave soldiers throughout our national history have fought in wars as the politicians have directed them according to the politicians’ assertions of the national interest.
Sometimes the politicians were wrong or dishonest. See PBS, Ken Burns, Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson, recently airing. Also see Iraq, WMDs, George W. Bush.
But it is surely safe to say that the young women and men who fought in all our American wars were overwhelmingly doing so for what they sincerely believed to be their morally superior nation’s commitment to freedom — from communism in Vietnam and terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Was their commitment to actual freedom, or was it to the symbols of it?
In most cases, it most likely was both. But … and this is the key point … requiring through the government a certain defined physical action in deference to those symbols would contradict the actual freedom they were fighting for.
In cases of conflict, as will arise, then these soldiers — and all of us — surely must side with the actual freedom rather than the symbol.
Finally, a story I’ve told before: In the late 1980s, after having written a column defending Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for vetoing a bill passed by his legislature to require standing for the pledge of allegiance in school, I fielded numerous reader complaints alleging that I didn’t appreciate what that flag meant to soldiers in battle.
As it happened, my dad was a Marine veteran — a 19-year-old private and rifleman — of the desperately gory battle on Okinawa near the end of World War II.
So, I asked him one day what that flag had meant to him in battle.
He asked me if I was crazy.
He never talked about combat. But, in answer to this question, he said anybody with a flag where he was would have had his rear end blown off.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.