Columnist

Boy, the St. Louis police really know how to cool things down, don’t they? They’ve taken a controversial protest by a handful of football players, and mixed it with a whiff of bullying authority and a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment, to create a bigger and more heated argument than it had to be. Sound familiar?

Five pass catchers for the St. Louis Rams raised their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture during their on-field introductions Sunday, in a sign of solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., where a grand jury refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown. An infuriated spokesman for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Jeff Roorda, called the display “unthinkable,” and has demanded the NFL discipline Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook for making their feelings known “so publicly.” But Roorda didn’t stop there. He added a veiled suggestion that the only thing protecting the Rams and the NFL from mob violence at games is the cops. And then he said:

“I know that there are those who say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I’ve got news for people who think that way. Cops have First Amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours.”

Set aside for a moment the vaguely threatening tone of the “I’ve got news for people who think that way” statement. What’s even more disturbing about Roorda’s remarks is that he clearly doesn’t know what the First Amendment says, though he is a former cop and current member of the Missouri state House of Representatives.

Whatever you may think about the Rams players, their gesture is a good excuse to sort out some First Amendment issues. What right did those players have to speak, and what right do the police have to tell them to shut up?

To begin with, the First Amendment only protects free speech against government action. That’s all it does. It doesn’t protect the St. Louis players from NFL owners, or league commissioners, or talk radio hosts who disagree with them. But it does protect them from the government. So the person in danger of abusing the First Amendment here is not the football player with the edgy gesture in a public stadium. Or the NFL owner who might want to tell them to shut up to protect advertising. It’s the governmental agent — like, say, a cop — who seeks to punish someone for expressing certain views.

Like it or not, private corporations or entities have the right to restrict speech of employees, and they do it all the time. “Typically an employer can,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. “You have no guarantee of free speech rights in the workplace, and if you think otherwise, try marching on your boss’s office and demanding a raise.”

In this case, the NFL has smartly decided that to discipline the players is the wrong move. The NFL audience is no doubt polarized on the issues in Ferguson, and to silence the players would seem to take a side. It would also smack of 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games for their black-gloved salutes. NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy said in a statement, “We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation.” Moreover, the players vaguely said afterward that their intent wasn’t to side with rioters against police; they weren’t out to divide or inflame but simply to recognize. Too often NFL teams seem to live above the problems of their cities, or in gated tax havens. “I don’t want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it,” Britt said.

But none of that was good enough for Roorda, who framed the players’ gesture as a betrayal. “As the players and their fans sit safely in their dome under the watchful protection of St. Louis’s finest, they take to the turf to call a now-exonerated officer a murderer, and that is way out of bounds,” he said. The implication was clear, that only police protection keeps the mob at bay, and if that protection was withdrawn, well, who knows what could happen.

Here, Roorda is walking a very fine line. Police officers have the right to express themselves, just as Rams players do. They are individual citizens who are entitled to speak their own minds about events. But what they aren’t entitled to do is refuse to do their official duty in order to punish someone else for speaking.

St. Louis police are perfectly entitled to call the local talk radio station if they don’t like the Rams’ players holding their hands up. What they aren’t entitled to do is lay down on the job, to say, refuse to handle traffic at the Rams games. So when Roorda talked about “the watchful protection” of St. Louis police at Rams games, it was more than a little unsettling.

Five members of the St. Louis Rams made an edgy gesture on Sunday, and you may not agree with them. But they merely joined a long tradition of athletes using their celebrity for symbolic public protest, and the NFL was right to reject the call to punish them. Punish them for what, after all? For showing an alertness and sensitivity to current events in their community, and holding an opinion on them?