Rebuilding the American Dream requires more than conflict

Lieutenant Clark “never hesitates to offer well-reasoned, if sometimes unpopular views.” Those words adorned the comment block of my first Officer Efficiency Report. This column offers both; a “well-reasoned” argument but some in this region make take umbrage to the message.

Controversy surrounds the recent behavior of members of the ETSU basketball team. They took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. Those actions and the response from the administration have both come under fire.

To many, including myself, it was a disrespectful gesture, disparaging the American flag, and by implication its institutions and those who have served (and died) to defend the nation. It appears that our foundational aspiration, one based on faith as much as hard reality, is under assault. To others, societal organizations have created impediments to the equality and freedoms that our forefathers espoused.

I recently read a statement, “America is no longer the country it thinks it is.” I might restate that, “Many American’s no longer think we are the country we aspire to be.” They do not believe that we can, by trial and (lots of) error, come ever closer to the vision laid out in those founding documents. They feel left out or shut-out of the American Dream. The road is too long, progress too little.

One world, two perspectives: a focus on prejudices long felt and aspirations unmet versus a celebration of lofty ideals even with an acknowledgement of unfulfilled goals. This leaves our national emblem, the flag, as a symbol of both what we what we desire to be and what we have failed to achieve.

Regardless of one’s position on the matter, the real questions at hand are whether the student athletes had the right to take a knee and whether the administration’s response was largely appropriate. I believe on both accounts they fundamentally were.

It would be easy to say that student athletes represent the University and the school ought to have the authority to set rules that must be obeyed or there are consequences. I have been on numerous teams where if you violated the rules, you “rode the pine” (sat the bench) or worse.

However, it is a different issue when it comes to freedom of speech. The courts have taken a very broad view. Athletes are not employees and a public school cannot abridge their 1st Amendment rights. In the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school officials cannot censor student speech unless they can show that such actions likely will cause a “substantial disruption” of school activities. The interruption of classes, threats to teachers, racially harassing conduct, fights or violent behavior on school grounds, and the canceling of school events have all been considered “substantial disruptions” within the meaning of the Tinker standard. Taking a knee does not.

This ruling on the constitutionality of behavior trumps administrative, regulatory or legislative action. Therefore, even if the University administration were to take a hardline stand, reprimand and try to impose stringent rules of conduct, they would lose in court. From a practical point of view, such action would expend substantial resources to mount a losing legal defense and drag out the controversy. The result would be the same except the rift between the two sides would likely be even more divisive.

Is kneeling during the National Anthem unpatriotic? For that matter, is flying a Confederate flag, the representation of a hostile nation against which the United States fought a bloody war, unpatriotic? Patriotism is not equivalent to “free speech.” Part of the America I love means people get to do things I don’t like, but they are free in this country to do so. I spent a quarter century serving in the military to protect those rights. Rather than despising others for their choice, perhaps we should try harder to understand why they made it.

How you perceive the ETSU students’ actions largely depends on which side of the divide you stand. Both perspectives have legitimacy. There is no one true reality only the world we see through our own eyes. In that we must simply agree to disagree.

Both side have made their point. They are passionate in their beliefs. They have the right to express their opinion in words and actions. Yet it is sad that we have reached this point of acrimony.

To each I now say, “What next?” Continue to fight the battle we already recognize? The solution to our division does not rest in the extremes or continued conflict.

Rather than condemning Dr Nolan (who is in a no-win situation) and threatening to withdraw support for the University, perhaps some efforts would be better spent helping to formulating a policy that allows for the exercise of free speech without perceived slights to our national symbols. The protesters, for their part, will now be more effective if they show they want to build a better place rather than simply criticize and tear down the existing paradigm.

Wouldn’t our region benefit from a healthy thriving university capable of attracting a wide variety of students and faculty from different areas and diverse backgrounds?

Perhaps this sounds pollyannish, but I believe that we can build a country (and a region), one that more closely resembles the America we all want in the future. Reconciliation rather than confrontation would seem the more rational course, for both sides.

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