Three campus free speech advocacy organizations issued two joint letters Wednesday in defense of athletes at Tennessee colleges who decide to kneel during the national anthem before sports games.

The letters, addressed to Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University, and Randy Boyd, president of the University of Tennessee system, are a response to Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee Senate, who this week urged the leaders of the state’s public institutions to prohibit athletes from kneeling during the anthem. The lawmakers took issue with men’s basketball players at ETSU kneeling during the anthem before a game on Feb. 15 to protest racial injustice.

“When they don the jersey of a Tennessee university, they step out of their personal roles and into the role of an ambassador for our state,” the 27 lawmakers wrote in a Feb. 22 letter. “We expect all those who walk onto the field of play representing our universities to also walk onto the field of play to show respect for our National Anthem.”

The free speech groups — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, PEN America and the National Coalition Against Censorship — wrote that the athletes’ right to kneel is protected under the First Amendment and a Tennessee state law that ensures students’ free expression on public campuses. The letters to Noland and Boyd stated that the athletes “are not ‘ambassadors’ of the State of Tennessee by virtue of playing for a public university’s sports team.”

“The ETSU players’ protest cannot reasonably be understood as speech by the university, but instead as an expression of the students’ personal views,” the letters said. “Calls to punish or prohibit student-athlete expression because it is perceived as insufficiently patriotic are invitations to violate students’ First Amendment rights.”

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