Monday, at a volleyball game in New Hope, a group of Starkville High School athletes took a knee during the playing of the national anthem.
It is one of many similar demonstrations that have cropped up across the nation as high school athletes emulate the “take a knee” protests of some NFL players. The players say the act is a form of protest against police brutality against black citizens and racial injustice in all its forms.
But for many, these acts are viewed as an insult to the anthem, the flag and those who have bled and died to defend our nation.
It’s an emotionally-charged situation, no matter which way you choose to interpret these acts.
In the aftermath of Monday’s incident at New Hope, local and state school officials are rushing to adopt policies that would require students to stand during the anthem and punish those who do not.
We believe this is an ill-advised response and, likely, unconstitutional considering Supreme Court precedents.
What should not be disputed is that this is an important learning opportunity for our children, not only about the origin and meaning of our patriotic observances but the principles these ceremonies are supposed to represent.
We want our children to love our nation and honor and respect those who have sacrificed so much to build and defend it. We also want our children to love our country for the ideas it represents, including the right to free expression. Our heroes died for that, too.
Since the beginning of our nation, dissent often has been an expression of patriotism. It is not “Our country, right or wrong,” but “Our country right, or set right.” Dissent seeks to “set right” what is in error.
We understand the expression of that dissent may be offensive to some. We may disagree about the form of dissent, its appropriateness, its effectiveness. But we should never seek to silence those voices through punishment.
Our Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, gave us the First Amendment because they were firm in their conviction that it is far, far better to be offended than oppressed.
For almost 250 years, that belief has been a distinguishing characteristic of our nation. It is what makes us a free people.
Once we start punishing people for peacefully expressing what they believe, the national anthem, the flag and all other expressions of patriotism lose their meaning. Coerced patriotism is not patriotism: It is authoritarianism.
We urge our school officials to resist the temptation to punish these students.
We should be less concerned with what athletes “stand for” than what America stands for, including the right to openly express our beliefs.
This is an important moment, a real-life test in American Civics.
Let’s hope our school officials pass the test.
Our children are watching.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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