Men's basketball team and first amendment rights

National civil rights campaign, "I can't breathe"
Posted Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - 12:18pm

Dear Editor:


During the warmups before the December 11th basketball game with SLCC, USU Eastern’s men’s basketball team wore T-shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe.” As you know, these words call to mind recent deaths in Ferguson and New York City, express sympathy to the families of those killed, and petition for greater scrutiny of law enforcement’s use of deadly force. After Thursday's game, several persons contacted me to express their disapproval and to call for a formal apology from the College.


Like the fans who contacted me, I honor and support the great men and women who serve and protect our community and our campus. Like them, I am deeply committed to first amendment rights. And like them, I have misgivings about the team’s choice to wear these t-shirts during warmups. This was, however, the student-athletes’ choice. The players purchased the shirts themselves, and no College employee either promoted or prohibited them from wearing the shirts.


As you know, in the first amendment our Founding Fathers forbade laws that “[abridge] the freedom of speech, [infringe] on the freedom of the press, [interfere] with the right to peaceably assemble, or [prohibit] the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.” These first amendment rights apply to individuals and to groups, and they apply in all sorts of settings — in the town square, in the media, in public events, and even at basketball games.


Further, a college campus should be particularly careful to harbor freedom of speech. The open exchange of ideas is part of what makes college education effective, requiring that students think critically and analytically. If a college environment only includes ideas which which the community agrees, ideas that are free of controversy and disapproval, then that environment is less than effective in its educational purpose.


USU Eastern is in a very real sense both the community’s college and the students’ college. Finding the right balance between these two constituencies can be difficult. USU Eastern did not ask student-athletes to wear the T-shirts, nor did the College forbid them to wear them. Instead, the College allowed freedom of speech in a public forum. Some have written to me that allowing student-athletes this freedom was pathetic and disgusting. I’m sorry that they think so.


As Chancellor, I neither approve nor condemn student-athletes in what they did. I do not want a climate of fear and hatred. I do not want to undermine our fine law enforcement officers. Instead, I want USU Eastern to be both a safe and welcoming place for our community, and an effective educational environment that harbors the free and open expression of ideas.


— Joe Peterson, Chancellor, USU Eastern

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