What Nike's New Campaign Can Teach Us About Freedom of Speech

It’s time to talk about freedom of speech in this country. What is it, why do we need it, and how should we react to it? Ever since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in 2016, we as a country have been arguing over whether he is an activist or an anti-patriot. Those in favor of Kaepernick believe kneeling is a peaceful protest that brings awareness to the many racial issues in this country. Those against him believe he is disrespecting his country, the flag, and the military. After people had finally started settling down about this, Nike came along and opened the issue back up. Their new marketing campaign features Kaepernick as well as many other American athletes. The video is inspiring, dramatic and nonpolitical, which is in line with all of Nike’s previous campaigns. The slogan accompanying Kaepernick’s face is “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.” This seems innocent enough, especially because they never tell you what to believe in. The issue is that many people see Kaepernick as an anti-patriot, not as an inspiring athlete and activist. While the ad was nonpolitical on the surface, the fact that they chose such a controversial figure is a political statement in itself. This could mean trouble for Nike. Cries for boycott have been sweeping the nation, complete with photos and videos of people cutting the Nike “swoosh” out of their clothes and burning their shoes. Herein lies the question: if we have the freedom to violently burn shoes, shouldn't Kaepernick and other players have the freedom to kneel during the national anthem?

I could spend the rest of this article detailing Kaepernick’s legal right to peaceful protest, but I would rather discuss the hypocrisy on both sides of the political spectrum than try to convince anyone to change their views on Kaepernick. I don’t want to prove him right. A person’s support or lack of support for Kaepernick lies in his or her inherent values and worldview, so I would recommend not even trying to change anyone’s mind. The important thing to remember is that his supporters are not automatically anti-patriots, and his critics are not automatically racist. Humans are more complicated than that, so just be respectful.

With that said, we should really examine our views on freedom of speech. Time and time again, I run into people who support freedom of speech when it comes from their side, but who decry it when it comes from the other side. When we believe a protestor is right, we defend her right to protest by citing her First Amendment rights. But when we disagree, we try to find ways around the First Amendment to explain why the protestor should just shut up or at least protest more subtly. For example, my more conservative friends have said that Kaepernick should simply find a different way to protest, to which I would argue kneeling is far preferable to violence. My more liberal friends have criticized those who burn their sneakers because it doesn’t hurt Nike’s sales and they should at least donate the shoes. I argue that taking a trip to Goodwill wouldn’t look as good on the internet and you need drama to make people notice. Obviously there is a better way to do everything, but why waste time thinking of alternatives when the damage is already done? It would be far more productive to come up with arguments based on our actual beliefs and values than to cheaply discredit protestors for their method of peaceful protest. Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, including you. So do as much research as you can in order to properly and respectfully disagree with protestors while still defending their right to speak their mind. And if you care that much about an issue, go do something about it. If your main issue with Kaepernick is that he is disrespecting the military, go donate to a charity that helps homeless veterans get back on their feet. If you support Kaepernick, figure out how you can help marginalized communities in your city so his protests actually do some good in the world. Most importantly, VOTE. The only permanent changes come from public policy, so if you really care this much, stop arguing over Facebook comments and go vote for representatives that share your values. The most American thing you can do is to support freedom of speech (which includes voting) and peaceful protests in whatever form they may take, even if you disagree. Freedom of speech is what makes America great. 

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