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Free Speech Theory

Understanding the Controversies


Edited By Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka

The rallying cry of "Free speech!" has long served as a touchstone for liberals and conservatives, alike, engaged in political polarization conflict and discourse. The democratization of media and the feverish pitch of political polarization, however, have contributed to the weaponization of free expression. From Colin Kaepernick to "fake news," boycotts of partisan television programming to removals of Confederate monuments, internet neutrality to the silencing of college professors and all points between, citizens and pundits all too frequently wield the slogan of "Free speech!" as the sword and shield of political discourse. Oftentimes, ironically they do so with little regard for the views of their opponents. As a result, society risks trading a substantive value for an empty slogan or, far worse, blind authority.To rediscover the underlying assumptions and social values served by free expression, and to move current controversies beyond rhetorical flourishes, Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka assemble an impressive group of legal and political scholars to address one overarching question: "Why should we value free speech?" Through analyses of several recent controversies invoking concerns for free expression, the contributors to this volume make complex political theory accessible, informative, and entertaining. Beginning with internet neutrality and ending with an overview of developing free expression controversies in comparable western democracies, experts reestablish the link between free expression and the underlying values it may serve. In doing so, this volume unearths values previously unexamined in our modern—but increasingly impoverished and bitter—political discourse.

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5. Speech and National Past Times: The NFL, the Flag, and Professional Athletes (Aaron Lorenz)


5. Speech and National Past Times: The NFL, the Flag, and Professional Athletes

Aaron Lorenz

“Rosa Parks stood by sitting and changed the way people felt about lying down.”1

“Sports and politics don’t mix.” When President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games to be held in the Soviet Union, this was the reaction of the Olympian Eric Heiden. After winning a record five individual gold medals at the Winter Olympics a few months earlier, Heiden unsuccessfully pursued a spot on the United States cycling team for the Summer games. Had he achieved that goal, he would have defied the President’s decision. In saying that “sports and politics don’t mix,” Heiden demonstrated that quite the opposite is true.2

Indeed, countless examples show that sports and politics do, in fact, mix quite well. This is because athletes are often very aware that the platform their athletic skill affords them can be used to make profoundly important political statements. Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, raising their black-gloved fists in solidarity with the human rights movement, particularly the Black Power movement in the U.S.; Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War; LeBron James and other prominent NBA players wearing shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” to draw attention to the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City Police Officers;...

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