Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
What do an NFL player and a Google engineer have in common? Their stories have ignited an ongoing debate on freedom of speech at a time when First Amendment rights are being challenged by the Trump administration.
It is useful to remember that the pillars upon which the American government was built 228 years ago are still solid. The miracle is that in the age of social media, smartphones, digital communication and the internet, the First Amendment is still relevant. It has been stretched and twisted, and endured reinterpretation over hundreds of years, and it still works.
Last week, the brouhaha was over James Damore, a Google engineer who was fired after he wrote an internal company memo criticizing Google’s diversity policies and hiring procedures. Damore suggested that there are fewer women engineers because women are wired differently, and he should know all about wiring since he’s an engineer, right?
Wrong. He stated that women and men are biologically different in ways that make them more or less suited for specific work. He asserted that Google’s pro-diversity hiring practices favor minorities and women. By the time he finished, he had both feet in his mouth and no job. Now he’s threatening to sue Google for firing him.
He also said that Google’s liberal atmosphere has made it difficult for employees who are more conservative to openly share their views. That could very well be true. Bias cuts both ways, and it is all to the good that Damore decided to air his grievances.
Personally, I don’t believe his theories on evolutionary psychology are correct, and I’m thinking maybe something else was behind his memo. Or maybe he just hates his mother. It doesn’t matter. To me, what he wrote falls well within the protections of free speech. I certainly think women have the right stuff to become engineers or anything else they want to be. But I can listen to others who think differently without screaming, “Off with their heads!”
Context is everything. The guy is an engineer at Google. If he were president of the United States, for example, his memo would be reprehensible. And actionable. Of course, the current president of the United States has said far worse things about women with impunity, and there have been neither actions taken nor serious consequences, but that’s another story.
In my book, the Google guy gets to write what he wants to write and say what he wants to say, even if his views are reactionary and offensive.
Then there’s the case of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er who refused to stand for the national anthem before NFL games last season. Kaepernick, who was born to a white mother and an African-American father, said of his protest, “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” — referring to a series of events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now Kaepernick is a free agent, with lots of time to contemplate the stance he took, or rather, did not take.
I fall on the side of the fence with those who supported his right to protest. I do not believe patriotism is measured by how many flag pins we wear or whether and how we position our bodies when a flag is carried by. Our anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is an inspiring-enough song, as anthems go, but lest we lose our minds over this, it is a song, and flags are pieces of cloth. What they represent is what must be honored. We stand when a flag-draped coffin goes by because we respect and honor the sacrifice of the fallen serviceman or woman.
The very reason Kaepernick can take a knee and not stand for the anthem is because of our First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression. He and the specifics of his politics are not as important as that right. I feel proud that he can protest, although I may disagree with his politics.
I can’t worry too much about the gestures of patriotism, such as standing at the right time or saluting. What matters is being a good citizen, serving in the military, paying taxes, voting and obeying the law.
President Trump is all about flag pins and red hats and rallies. But behind the show of red, white and blue bunting, he demonstrates, in speech and action, a disturbing determination to stifle freedom of the press and other First Amendment rights.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.