Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Prudence, Tolerance, and Freedom of Speech

Recently a lot of headlines have been made about some “taking a knee” during the National Anthem in the NFL. It’s even spread to a few youth teams here and there. An Iowa marching band even walked off the field last week during the national anthem. The debate has been this is “freedom of speech.” But to me, there’s deeper issues here that give us the chance to look at the whole issue of freedom of speech, and when it’s right to use it, verses to exercise restraint.

For one, I think we must remember freedom of speech has limits. You can’t yell “fire!” In a crowded theater. As this applies to the NFL, I do think that players have the right to “take a knee” if they so desire. I would not propose a law jailing someone for taking a knee during the national anthem. BUT, (and it’s a big BUT) what I think is being missed here is the prudence of doing such a thing, and the fact that while for you and me, the NFL is a source of entertainment, for the men on the field, it is their place of work.

That being said, as an NFL fan, I do not like the “taking a knee.” I find it disrespectful of the flag, and also question if it helps or hurts the message the players doing it are trying to convey (more on that later). That is not the point of this column however. But with respect to the limits of freedom of speech, what I think is being missed is that the owners have a right to limit it, because the “taking a knee” is being done on their time, by their employees. Whether they choose to do so will remain to be seen. I continue to enjoy the NFL, and am not boycotting it. But it’s important to remember while we have the right to express our opinions and say it, employers can also limit this. I had to do just that once. At a prior parish I served, we started child care during Mass (hopefully we’ll have that here too down the road). One person on staff promptly put something on Facebook implying children were not welcomed at Mass because she did not like the change. I told her this needed to be removed as she worked for the parish, and we can’t have employees voicing disagreement with the parish. She did remove it without any pushback. I also had a friend, now a priest, who once drove for Coca Cola. He told me that if he were seen with a Pepsi in the truck he’d be canned (no pun intended). And if I as a priest went off on social media against my bishop, or “took a knee” at a meeting during the National Anthem, I’d expect a phone call from “downtown.” So the bottom line is we can’t have a sense of entitlement and think we can say whatever we want without consequences.

We also need to ask ourselves how will what I am doing impact what point I am trying to make, and will this help or hurt my message? Think of the Westboro Baptist people – the people who protest funerals, Chiefs games, concerts, etc. They may have a freedom to protest, but their doing so hurts other people. No matter what your issue, I think most would hope that they could have dialogue or change the mind of the other person. The problem is we seem to be arguing less, and shouting more as a society. As I mentioned in my homily last week, a Christian pro-life group got kicked out of a coffee house in Seattle, Bedlam Coffee, by it’s owner, Ben Borgman, who told the group, “I’m gay, you have to leave.” Ben didn’t seem to even want to talk to them, and proceeded to mock Christ and hurl profanities at them. They just wanted some coffee. Sadly these things aren’t isolated. It’s good to try to listen to others, to have a conversation, and to agree to disagree if needed. But while one my have the freedom to shout, to yell, to get on social media, if all it accomplishes is making you feel better for a few minutes but no real change, we might want to think about our speech.

It’s also important to think about how our speech impacts others. A few weeks ago I watched my beloved Twins in New York. The crowd was having fun with Max Kepler, who dove for a ball that perhaps he didn’t need to dive for. They took it upon themselves to jeer and taunt him; my favorite were the women in front of us. One said to the other “don’t make fun of him, he’s from Minnesota, he’s miserable enough!” Now this is what you’d expect in the outfield of a Major League Baseball game, especially in the Bronx. There was no hate or animosity there. But think if you yelling at a 12 year old, or his coach. Why are you doing this? Perhaps you have a right to yell or jeer, but might that embarrass or hurt the feelings of someone? To take it a bit further, if one is going off on social media on their family, or even not respecting a family member’s wishes not to post pictures of them or talk about them all the time online, or if a Catholic is condemning the pope and bishops, is that really a prudent use of speech? I’d argue not. We never want to harm others or our Church with our speech (or what we put on social media!), so it’s important to think about what we say and write before we do it.

Tolerance is also an important thing for us to have. Again, in this age of shouting, it’s important not to hate. If we see someone taking a knee on TV, but then hate everyone who takes a knee or call them all a “bunch of unpatriotic bums,” that’s a problem. Now we don’t have to watch them, or even support them. Some have tuned out the NFL and that’s just fine. But we need to respect the voices of those with whom we disagree. This is why I think with respect to the national anthem, it might be better for those who do take a knee to instead consider having a town hall meeting, blogging, giving money to their causes or interacting with fans on social media so people know what their message really is all about. This is true with other issues too. We can be very passionate about our politics, our faith, and passion is good. But even if we know we won’t change on an issue, we can at least hear the other person out, and respect them and their right to speak their minds.

Lastly, thinking before we speak is a good thing. It can be easy to click “send” online or to let emotion bubble over when we get into heated discussions. But if we want others to really hear our message and not just our voice or emotions, speech requires thought. Again, we need to think about how what we say will impact our families, friends, Church, or reflect upon our faith. It’s good to know what we are talking about by studying our issue. Take what goes on in the pro-life movement with sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics, or at life centers that help moms choose life. There is no judgment, no shouting, no hate. Rather presented are the facts of what happens as a child develops, prayer, tolerance, and ways for people to make a better choice. This kind of action has led to thousands of babies being saved, and even led to the conversion of Norma McCorvey, who was the “Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade and one time abortion activist to change. Because of their work to help others see the sanctity of life in the womb and to truly educate, as opposed to shouting at people or making attacks, the pro-life movement has changed minds and saved lives. There’s a lot we can learn from how they get their message across.

Freedom of Speech is one of our cherished rights, as it should be. But as God gave us a mouth, He also gave us virtues, among them prudence, which guides us in so many things, among them in how to speak and use that mouth. So let’s use that virtue and think about what we say and how we say it, while at the same time remembering that person with whom we disagree is also a human being created in the image and likeness of God.

Have a great week! 

Fr. Paul