Before kickoff of Southern Illinois University’s Sept. 30 football game against Northern Iowa, and then again before yesterday’s Homecoming game, three African-American SIU cheerleaders decided to take a knee during the national anthem, joining the protests that have marked National Football League games this season.

The young ladies didn’t take this action lightly. They were fully aware their actions would be controversial. They walked into the breach with open eyes, understanding there would be repercussions, including possibly being removed from the squad.

What they didn’t expect was the vitriol, hatred and physical threats heaped upon them.

SIU’s student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, reported their protest. The story resulted in a torrent of comments on various social media platforms. Some of the comments were physically threatening.

“These people know our faces and names now,” one of the cheerleaders said. “And, we’re getting death threats and sexual assault threats and being called the N-word so many times.”

The SIU Department of Public Safety investigated the threats made on social media, and ultimately decided that “none of the members of the squad were the subject of direct threats …” Still, the comments were threatening enough that they were reported to the department.

Granted, this is a controversial issue, but issuing physical threats because someone takes an opposing political view is not only immoral and illegal, it is un-American.

The young ladies who decided to take a knee were fully aware that they would face criticism for their actions. They knew there would be dialog and discussion. They understand the First Amendment doesn’t protect you from criticism and invective, it simply protects you from governmental reprisals.

But, no one, no matter how reprehensible their views, should be subjected to threats of murder or rape. And, of course, threats were from anonymous sources directed at people who had the courage of their convictions, who took a public stand.

This is not the America our forefathers envisioned. We are a country born of dissent, nurtured on lively debate about what it means to be an American. We have had long, loud angry debates about women’s suffrage, Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The arguments weren’t pretty, but each time we emerged a nation for closely aligned with America’s ideals.

Unfortunately, this is not the America of a generation ago where anonymous death threats could be largely dismissed as simply overheated rhetoric. This is the America of Las Vegas, the America of Sandy Hook. The incident needs to be investigated thoroughly with anyone making personal threats prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Second, the racial component of the backlash cannot be ignored. The inability of Americans to get past the racial divide is like an alcoholic’s battle with the bottle – we seem to be in constant recovery, but we have never been cured.

It is foolhardy at this time in our history to believe that society will have a sudden moment of clarity, of unification. The protest picks at a scab that America has been trying to hide since the early days of the republic.

As Americans, we have every right to state our political beliefs. We have every right to vigorously debate those issues. We do not have the right to threaten others. We do not have the right to coerce others to adopt our point of view.

Finally, we commend the university for its handling of the matter. University officials have acknowledged their personal views, at the same time noting that our constitution allows for peaceful dissent.

“SIU Carbondale encourages all members of its community to respect the flag and our national anthem. We also understand that these two important symbols stand for one of our most important Constitutional rights: freedom of speech. The university must ensure that all members of the community have the right to express their views safely and peacefully, whether or not others agree with those views or the means being used to express them,” Chancellor Carlo Montemagno said in a statement to the newspaper.

He also stated that the university’s first concern is for the safety of the students. Political disagreements should never force personal safety to be a concern, not if we truly believe in what the flag represents.

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