HARROGATE, Tenn. — After 27 Tennessee republican lawmakers asked state public higher-education leaders to ensure that athletes refrain from kneeling as the national anthem plays during games, experts said the request can violate the first amendment.
They said that since students don't work for their universities, it is within their rights to protest as long as it is not disruptive to other students' educations.
"They are citizens like the rest of us," said Stewart Harris, a law professor at Lincoln Memorial University. "And if they want to do something that's not disruptive to the educational process if they want to silently get down on one knee and protest the treatment of Black Americans by police, that is pretty clearly within their constitutional rights."
Harris also said that lawmakers can request how the universities handle athletes who take a knee as the national anthem plays. The letter was directed to chancellors and presidents of the state's public universities including the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Some athletes - professional and amateur - have in recent years as a protest or sign of individual expression kneeled during the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Some teams also refrain from coming out during the playing of the song.
In January, some Lady Vols players kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before the Arkansas game. Last week, members of the East Tennessee State University men's basketball team were photographed kneeling during the anthem before a game against UT Chattanooga.
The Republican senators said they understand student-athletes have a right to express their views "during their personal time."
But they shouldn't when they're wearing their state college's uniform, the senators wrote.