Freedom of Speech Does Not Guarantee Understanding

Daily Beast columnist Jay Michaelson is unhappy with America’s football fans.

In a thoughtful column, he argues that “kneeling for the anthem is a sign of respect, not disrespect, for our country and the values it stands for.” He adds that “To protest—for whatever cause, left or right wing—is to make real the best ideals of America: freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law. Protesting brings those ideals into reality.”

But as players kneel in protest, America’s football fans have not been pleased. Ratings and attendance are down while public perceptions of the NFL have fallen dramatically.

There are many reasons for this, but the fundamental problem is that the message any audience sees and hears is often different than what the messenger meant to convey. That’s true in any form of communication on any subject. Michaelson has a clear idea of what he thinks the players taking a knee are trying to say. But others hear something else entirely because we all tend to view the world through our own filters and perceptions.

Many fans (or former fans) enjoy football and other sports as a space free from blatant political commentary. These fans are probably just irritated that political activists have invaded their weekend entertainment. In their view, the players are entertainers and should do what they’re paid to do.

Others have come to see the kneeling as a sign of disrespect for the flag, the nation, and the military. That may not be the intent, but that’s the perception. Michaelson recognizes this and wants us to “stop talking about their form of protest, and engage with what they’re trying to say.” But, in the eyes of many, the form of protest has become the central message of the effort.

I happen to agree with Michaelson that the freedom to protest and call attention to our nation’s shortcomings is essential to progress. Additionally, I devoted an entire chapter of Politics Has Failed: America Will Not to the tragic legacy of institutionalized racism. It is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and the NFL’s celebrity voices could play an important role in that process.

But it is also time for the protesters to recognize that their efforts may be doing more harm than good. As long as there is nothing in their employment contract to prevent kneeling for the anthem, they certainly have the right to protest in this manner. That’s what freedom of speech is all about.

But freedom of speech does not come with a guarantee that you will be understood on your own terms. Players and others may think fans are misinterpreting their intentions, but that doesn’t mean the fans are wrong. Instead, it means that the protesters must find a better way to communicate their message.

I don’t know what that might look like, and I definitely do not think the players should give up and remain silent. But it’s probably time for the protesters to declare victory and develop a new approach that can win broad support from their fans and the public at large.

Posted in Scott's Columns

Scott's Newsletter
Sign up for Scott's newsletter and get his political insight delivered right to your inbox!