ACLU of Tennessee Statement on ETSU Men's Basketball Team Taking a Knee and Lawmakers' Response

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
February 23, 2021 6:30 pm

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Tennessee
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before a game last week, the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team knelt during the national anthem. State lawmakers have criticized the players’ actions in the media and at a Tennessee General Assembly committee hearing. On Monday, Senate Republicans sent a letter to all presidents and chancellors of Tennessee’s public colleges and universities urging them to adopt athletic department policies prohibiting kneeling in the future.

The ACLU of Tennessee issued the following statement in response:

“The ACLU of Tennessee commends the ETSU men’s basketball team for using one of our nation’s most valuable and practical tools for advocacy – freedom of expression. These young people exercised their constitutional rights to protest systemic racism and police violence. Freedom of expression does not cease to exist if you walk onto a basketball court – especially if you attend a public university. Your ability to protest peacefully does not disappear because of a scholarship, and your First Amendment rights are certainly not tied to lawmakers’ reactions to the content of your speech.

“Yesterday, during a Government Operations Committee hearing, state lawmakers used their platform to attack and insult these student-athletes. Tennessee senators doubled down this afternoon and sent a letter to leaders of public colleges and universities to adopt policies within their athletic departments to prohibit peaceful protest.

“Such policies would be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that neither public schools nor legislators can force their definition of patriotism on students by requiring students to participate in compelled speech. These students can say what they want as long as it does not disrupt the learning process.

“When public universities play the national anthem, they are opening a public forum for free expression under the First Amendment. Public universities cannot then turn around and censor students for expressing themselves by taking a knee. ETSU’s support for their students’ free expression is constitutional, appropriate, and in keeping with academic ideals of promoting free thought and dialogue.

“Tennessee lawmakers, on the other hand, are proposing that Tennessee’s universities create unconstitutional policies. Today’s letter fits a recent pattern: state legislators have used their extraordinary power to chill the speech of those who take a stand, or a knee, in protest of racial inequality.

“Six months ago, Governor Bill Lee signed into law SB 8005, a bill enhancing offenses commonly associated with protests. The bill had its intended effect: swiftly ending the 62-day long People’s Plaza Protest in support of racial equity. Tomorrow, the House Criminal Justice subcommittee will hear HB 513, a bill that grants immunity to drivers of vehicles who run over and kill a protester in the street. While Tennessee politicians talk a good game lauding the First Amendment, they are simultaneously busy taking action to shut down the speech of anyone with whom they disagree.

“The peaceful actions of the ETSU basketball team may offend some. Their freedom of expression, though, is not bound by lawmakers’ fragile sensitivities.”

This statement is available online at:

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The Latest in Free Speech

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About Free Speech

Free Speech issue image

Protecting free speech means protecting a free press, the democratic process, diversity of thought, and so much more. The ACLU has worked since 1920 to ensure that freedom of speech is protected for everyone.