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Protesting band members turn to ribbons, armbands

The FIRE's Shibley says protests of police misconduct and discrimination are allowed, but they could be considered an endorsement of the cause by the university

Image from N.C. State University Flickr account
Image from N.C. State University Flickr account

Members of some North Carolina college marching bands, protesting what they consider police brutality, have abandoned kneeling while playing “The Star Spangled Banner” before football games and instead are wearing ribbons or armbands on their uniforms.

A First Amendment expert says such protests are allowable but may reflect badly on both band members who do not wish to participate and the university as a whole.

Protesting band members at both N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have attached ribbons to their uniforms or hats while continuing to stand in formation as they play the anthem.

The protests echo those of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began sitting on the bench before preseason National Football Games when the anthem was played. Kaepernick said he was objecting to oppression of black people in the United States. Other NFL players have joined the protest by kneeling during the anthem.

The practice of kneeling during the anthem has been repeated by players in several college football games, but it hasn’t spread widely in part because in many occasions, the players do not take the field until the anthem is over.

Band protests in North Carolina started not long after the September riots in Charlotte that occurred after a black police officer shot and killed a black resident. At East Carolina University, 19 band members dropped to one knee during the anthem before the Pirates’ Oct. 1 game against the University of Central Florida. Fans began booing when the band performed at halftime of the game, and radio station WFAY in Fayetteville, which broadcasts ECU football games, refused to carry the team’s next game against the University of South Florida as a consequence.

ECU officials issued a statement Oct. 3 announcing a ban of similar protests by band members at future games.

Two UNC-Chapel Hill band members kneeled and put down their instruments during the playing of the anthem before the Sept. 24 game against the University of Pittsburgh. Since then, however, protesting band members have started donning ribbons or armbands, though the demonstrations largely have escaped notice. N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill have played only one home game since the ECU controversy, and it was on Oct. 8 when torrential rains associated with Hurricane Matthew forced band members to wear ponchos, concealing modifications to the uniforms from spectators’ view.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that universities allowing such displays by band members could be seen as a university-wide endorsement of the political message the band members are expressing.

The FIRE is a nonprofit educational and legal foundation that protects individual rights at U.S. colleges and universities, including “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.”

Part of Shibley’s concern is that N.C. State’s band director reportedly allowed band members who wanted to protest police misconduct to wear black ribbons or armbands but would not allow students who wanted to show support for law enforcement authorities to wear blue ribbons or armbands.

“If [university officials are] willing to let people take one political viewpoint and modify the way they perform or modify their uniform and not another viewpoint, then effectively [the officials] taken a position on that issue,” Shibley said.

Shibley, a Duke University graduate, played in the band.

“We were expected to wear the uniform and not to make our own modifications to it,” Shibley said. “It’s the same with athletes. They can be told this is what the uniform needs to look like. That’s what the word ‘uniform’ means.”

Michael Pardue of Nashville, an N.C. State alumnus and band member, said he’s glad the university is not allowing band members to kneel during the playing of the anthem. “But I think that by limiting [uniform modifications] to one ribbon only, that’s not free speech,” Pardue said.

In an email exchange between Pardue and Daniel Monek, head of the N.C. State Music Department, Pardue expressed concerns that band members who wore ribbons or arm bands showed a lack of respect for the anthem and that allowing individual protests would compromise the uniformity of the band.

Monek responded by saying that members of a group as large as a marching band will have a variety of perspectives, but their “[c]ommitment to one another as a team is significant.” He said the university was trying to foster a constructive dialogue among band members.

Monek did not respond to a request for comment.

Hunter Markson, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior who is a member of the marching band, said he was upset by the Aug. 24 protest, which he said made it look as if the entire band were protesting.

“There were only two clarinet players kneeling down,” said Markson, a former research intern at the John Locke Foundation. “Now people think the band is liberal activists. Not all of us agree with what they’re doing.”

Markson said that band directors in middle school and high school told him the band should be considered a unit.

“These people were not performing as a group,” Markson said. “They were doing something that was important to them, but they were doing it as individuals.”

N.C. State’s next home game is Oct. 29 against Boston College. UNC-Chapel Hill’s next home game is Nov. 5 against Georgia Tech.