Last month, every member of the World Inquiry School 58 boys’ varsity soccer team took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a match against Aquinas Institute. Since then, four local activist groups have spoken out in support of the boys’ protest.
“We called for this gathering in order to publicly express our collective pride, appreciation and support for the young men on the School 58 soccer team,” said student minister Kenneth Muhammad of the Rochester Study Group of the Nation of Islam.
In its statement, the organization praised the students for their “bold, courageous and righteous stand on behalf of themselves, their families and the broader black community, as well as oppressed communities in general.”
The high school students, most of whom are African-American, said that they were inspired by the movement started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem in protest against police brutality.
“Racism cuts through all of this,” said Howard Eagle, the co-facilitator of the Facing Race, Embracing Equity Work Group. “We are somewhat concerned by what seems to be a calculated effort on the part of the Rochester City School District to restrict and redirect students’ First Amendment rights regarding the importance of open and honest dialogue concerning this critical matter.”
However, Chip Partner, the spokesperson for the school district, claims that School 58 did not discourage the protests in any way.
“In no way did the school attempt to restrict the rights of students. To the contrary, the school and the district affirmed the students’ First Amendment rights, and used this as a teachable moment,” said Partner.
A letter was sent to the parents of the soccer players, encouraging them to discuss the issue at home. It said: “While we respect and honor the First Amendment rights of all students, we also need to ensure that the students are provided the opportunity to make a well-informed decision in collaboration with their coach and parents.”
Protests like the one conducted by the School 58 soccer team are happening in schools all over the country, and it raises the question: Can schools punish students for protesting the national anthem?
Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, insists that public schools do not have the authority to discipline students for silent acts of protest that do not disrupt school operations. According to LoMonte, it’s not only a good educational opportunity to allow silent, unobtrusive acts of protest, it is also constitutionally mandated.
The 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette ruled that schools cannot require students to observe patriotic rituals. Courts have made it clear that public institutions can’t withhold privi
leges if students exercise their right to free speech, either. That means that suspending a soccer player for kneeling during the national anthem is not permitted.
Every year, roughly 433 soccer scholarships are available to boys and 806 to girls. Can refusing to stand for the national anthem damage a student’s chances of receiving a college scholarship? That, of course, is entirely up to the individual university, since many are private — rather than public — schools, to which this rule does not apply.