The Free Speech Center

First Amendment News and Insights from MTSU

Lessons in Liberty

First Amendment hypotheticals for classroom use, developed in partnership with the Poynter Institute's Press Pass program

In this Jan. 9, 2021, file photo, Washington State players kneel during the national anthem in front of standing Stanford players before an NCAA college basketball game in Santa Cruz, Calif. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Lesson No. 2

Taking a knee for free speech

If students kneel during the national anthem, can their schools punish them for disruptive expression?

This hypothetical case study is brought to you for free by the Free Speech Center at the Middle Tennessee State University, in partnership with the Poynter Institute and its Press Pass series.

Before class (30 minutes)

Read/watch:

Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Hypothetical

You are a student reporter for your high school newspaper, sent to cover your school’s homecoming basketball game. You attend a public school but the game is against your biggest rival, the private Catholic school in town.

You arrive at the gym and take your seat near the announcer, so you’ve got a great view of the home-team bleachers and both teams’ benches. You’re excited to cover the game because you got a tip that the two team captains are good friends, having played club ball together since they were young.

But before the game even starts, members of both teams take a knee during the national anthem, engaging in the silent protest against police brutality popularized by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. An assistant coach on your team also takes a knee next to the players; the other coaches remain standing.

People in the crowd don’t seem to know how to react. Most people are standing up with their hats off and their hands over their hearts. Some are singing. A few boos are heard, and one teacher from your school stands up and extends both middle fingers to the players on the floor for the entirety of their protest.

The game goes on after the silent protests, and you visit with the fans, players and coaches for your story. You discover that the two friends coordinated the effort to get their teammates to kneel, but that they are expecting repercussions from the schools — they all feel they are well within their free-speech rights. 

Later, you read in the local paper that the Catholic school has suspended its team captain for a week for coordinating the protest, and reprimanded the other players. Now there are calls for the team captain of your public school to be suspended “for disrespecting the flag.” One conservative radio host in town has called for the kneeling coach to be fired, while a liberal radio host has called for the teacher who flipped off the students to be fired or reprimanded. 

Discussion questions

  1. How should the principal and superintendent of your public high school react to calls for them to suspend your school’s team captain?
  2. What about the teacher who flipped off the students, or the coach who kneeled — are the public school officials within their rights to take personnel action against the two employees?
  3. Was the Catholic school within its rights to suspend its basketball team captain?
  4. What if your team captain (like all other athletes at your school) signed an agreement holding him to higher standards of conduct than other students?
  5. Do public school students have more rights to free expression than NFL players? Why or why not? 
  6. The First Amendment specifically addresses the freedom of “speech,” but no words were uttered by the players. Are their actions still considered protected? 

Court decisions

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District

Pickering v. Board of Education

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Lesson 1A header_Rap music.jpgGraphic by Leslie Haines

Lesson No. 1A

Taking the rap for murder

A young rapper was convicted of murdering a local hero. His lyrics and video were included as evidence. Is that fair?

Before/during class (15 minutes)

*Please note that the optional music-video viewing assignment contains racial slurs and profanity. Please watch the video yourself before assigning to your students and decide if it is appropriate for their consumption privately. 

Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

Issue overview

In December 2015, a 15-year-old high schooler in Knoxville, Tenn., was shot and killed when he shielded female friends from gunfire. Zaevion Dobson’s compelling act of courage was subsequently honored by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, and Dobson was posthumously honored by ESPN with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Three men were tried in connection with his slaying. One, Christopher Bassett, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 35 years on a related charge. Two co-defendants got more than 100 years behind bars each.

The ACLU wrote: “Rap music, in trial after trial, has been treated as inherently incriminating. ... At trial, the state showed the jury a rap video featuring Bassett as evidence against him, despite the fact that the videos were recorded months before the murder and make no mention of the victim. Prosecutors argued that Bassett’s sometimes violent and graphic imagery was a confession in song.”

This is not the only case your students may be familiar with. In Florida, rapper YNW Melly was arrested after the 2018 shooting deaths of two of his friends — with authorities citing his song “Murder on My Mind” (warning: video includes graphic imagery and profanity) in their case against him, despite its having been released 18 months before the slayings. And in Maryland, a top court ruled that rap lyrics can be used as evidence in court to prove defendants guilty.

As veteran music-industry attorney Dina LaPolt wrote recently in her Variety column, “Rap Lyrics Now Admissible as Court Evidence: A Dangerous Precedent,” “I would invite anyone suggesting that this ruling is not limited to rap music to find an example of a court admitting lyrical evidence of a country singer driving drunk or shooting a cheating spouse.”

On the other hand, courts frequently allow past statements to come into court as evidence. Should that change because the statement has a beat?

The ACLU wrote, in describing its decision to file an amicus brief for Bassett, “Tennessee’s use of ‘Double O’ lyrics as evidence at trial is not only an illegal violation of constitutional free-speech and free-association rights, but would discourage artistic expression in the future. ... If this precedent is allowed to stand, no one who has ever spit a rhyme is safe.”

Discussion questions:

  1. What do you think of the prosecution’s decision to show the video to jurors?
  2. Do you think the First Amendment should protect artistic expression in this instance? Why or why not? Do you think the judge should have kept the song out of the courtroom on First Amendment grounds?
  3. What are the future implications for artists who want to express their experiences through music, even if it includes violence?
  4. Think about some of your favorite artists and songs. Do you consider their lyrics  to be autobiographical and factual, or do you assume that their creators are taking liberties with their life experiences, or both?

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