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Protesting by ‘taking a knee’ comes to Iowa high school football


Illustration by Angela Zirbes

Last week, the controversy over athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, which began in the NFL, reached high school football in Iowa. A racist message on Snapchat attacked a Clear Creek-Amana High School player who chose to kneel while his teammates stood for the national anthem before the Oct. 6 game against Marion High School.

Iowa has an important tradition of school students conducting peaceful protests. A protest in 1965 by five Des Moines students led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right of minors to engage in non-disruptive protests at school.

The four Tinker siblings — John, Mary Beth, Hope and Paul — and their friend Christopher Eckhardt wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. School officials demanded they remove the armbands. The Tinkers and Eckhardt refused. They were all sent home, and the two eldest Tinkers, John and Mary Beth, and Eckhardt were suspended. Their parents, assisted by ACLU of Iowa, filed a lawsuit against the school district on their behalf.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Des Moines Independent Community School District had violated the First Amendment rights of the students. In his majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “Students in school, as well as out of school, are ‘persons’ under our Constitution … They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.”

Schools still have substantial authority to regulate the speech and behavior of students, even in the case of protests. But as the ACLU of Iowa points out in its guide to student’s rights, under current Iowa law, school officials can only regulate political speech or action if it involves substantial disruption to a school activity, is vulgar or obscene, violates the rights of others, encourages illegal behavior, injects an official religious message into a non-religious setting or appears in school-sponsored publications or media.

Following the racist Snapchat post attacking its student, the Clear Creek-Amana School District issued a statement supporting the athlete and his right to peacefully protest. The statement read, in part, “The Clear Creek-Amana Community School District, as an educational institution, supports the free exchange of ideas embodied by the First Amendment. The District will not interfere with a student’s right of expression by peacefully kneeling or sitting during the traditional standing for the National Anthem.”

Little Village contacted all the other school districts in Johnson and Linn Counties by email earlier this week to ask what their policies on peaceful student protests such as kneeling during the national anthem are. So far, only two of the 10 districts contacted have replied.

“We do not have a formally established policy,” said Steve Doser, communications director for the College Community School District in Linn County. “Our approach would be the same as Clear Creek-Amana. We wouldn’t interfere with a student’s right of expression, even if that involves sitting or kneeling during the time when it’s traditional to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”

Matthew May, communication director for the Linn-Mar School District, emailed the following statement:

If a student on the athletic field or in the classroom, chooses to kneel or remain seated during the National Anthem he/she is able to do so. This is in keeping with our existing practice of allowing students to express their First Amendment right to free speech so long as it does not significantly disrupt or compromise the learning environment. Students whose religious beliefs do not include participating in the Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, or other patriotic observances are allowed similar accommodations during the daily patriotic observance.

Should a student take such action, teachers and administrative staff should be intentional to avoid confronting the student during the playing of the National Anthem. Conversation with the student after the conclusion of the game or event may be held to ensure that the student understands avenues available to him/her to express their personal opinion while also displaying good citizenship.

May also sent a link to the section 603.6 of the district’s official policy manual, which begins: “Student participation in opening and/or closing school day ceremonies or observances of a ceremonial nature shall be of the student’s own choosing. The school shall respect each student’s personal beliefs, non-religious or religious, concerning patriotism as it relates to the opening or closing of school programs.”

If any of the other school districts in Johnson and Linn Counties reply, Little Village will update this story to include their statements.

Last month, Gov. Kim Reynolds said NFL players were being “so disrespectful” and set a bad example for young people by kneeling during the national anthem. It was not clear from her comments if Reynolds actually understands why players are protesting.

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