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The right to free speech

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By Greg Romberg

We were in England the last week of September to attend the play my daughter Alex directed for her final project to complete a master of fine arts degree from the East 15 Acting School in London. Whenever we travel abroad, I’m always fascinated to see what news from the United States seems to be the most important to the locals.
It may have had something to do with the fact that the Ravens played the Jaguars at Wembley Stadium the day we got to London and the Saints played the Dolphins there the day we left, but the big story about the United States in England while we were there was President Trump’s comments about NFL players not standing for the national anthem, and the reaction to the president by players, coaches, owners and fans.
I always find it fascinating when people protest and utilize the symbols of our country to do so. The first time I remember the conflicts between my visceral reaction to a protest and my reasoned reaction to the same event had to do with people wearing American flags to protest at Red Rocks while I was in high school.  
Pictures of people disrespecting our flag made the blood of the teenage version of me boil. I suggested that my friends and I head from our homes in Steamboat to Red Rocks to confront protesters and rescue the disrespected flags. My social studies teacher, a man named Jim Heath — my favorite teacher who influenced my decision to study political science in college — suggested that we think about what the First Amendment says about freedom of speech. He also asked us if we thought the flag, as a symbol of our country and what it stands for, could withstand what we considered to be disrespect. I don’t remember if he invoked Voltaire, but he clearly introduced the concept of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
NFL players who’ve chosen not to stand for the national anthem have triggered similar feelings. I not only stand whenever I hear the “Star Spangled Banner,” I put my hand over my heart and sing along. It bothers me when people at sporting events do not take off their hats while it is played. I wish NFL players had found a different way to express their concerns, but our country is strong enough to withstand any protest of this kind. I appreciate the solidarity displayed by players, coaches and owners over the president’s attack on players for expressing their First Amendment rights.
I wish everyone would respect the symbols of our country, including our flag and national anthem, the same way I do. I find comfort and solidarity when we do. But the symbols aren’t nearly as important as the principles for which they stand. I’ll take the right to free speech (along with our other First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, religion, assembly and to petition) over those symbols every time.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie.