What Steve Mnuchin gets totally wrong about free speech

Mnuchin: NFL players can protest off the field
Mnuchin: NFL players can protest off the field

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Mnuchin: NFL players can protest off the field 01:51

(CNN)Lost amid Donald Trump's swirl of tweets about NFL players who sit or kneel during the national anthem were some decidedly odd comments by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about the 1st Amendment.

Here's what Mnuchin told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday morning when asked about the protests:
"This is about respect for our military. This is about respect for our first responders. This is not about Republicans or Democrats. Players have the right for free speech off the field. On the field, this is about respect for lots of people. And I don't understand why there's rules that when the Dallas Cowboys wanted to put stickers on their helmets out of respect for people there, they couldn't do it, but now the NFL is saying people should be able to decide what they want to do and disrespect the United States flag."
Let's start with Mnuchin's assertion that standing for the national anthem is fundamentally about "respect for our military" and "respect for our first responders."
    That may well be why many people stand for the anthem. Which is great. But the national anthem isn't the sole territory of the military and first responders. The national anthem is not about any one group. It is about our trajectory as a country -- about the effort to be a more perfect and equal union every day from our founding until today. About how we are always striving to do better and be better.
    And, at the root of the protests surrounding the flag, which was begun by Colin Kaepernick last year, is not a lack of patriotism or support for the military. Kaepernick made quite clear that he was protesting racial injustice in the country and, in particular, the violence against black men committed by the police. To obscure the stated reasons for the protest and lump it all into a lack of patriotism is to -- whether accidentally or purposely -- miss the point.
    But that's not even the biggest problem with Mnuchin's argument on the NFL. This is: "Players have the right to free speech off the field."
    Um, what?
    Free speech, which is enshrined right there in the 1st Amendment, is not something that you only get at certain times. You get it all the time. It's literally a founding principle of this nation.
    Yes, the NFL is a private association made up of 32 team owners. And, yes, as such, they have the right to fire or penalize an employee who, they believe, engages in conduct unbecoming to the team.
    (It's worth noting that, almost to a team, NFL owners came out in support of their players, not Trump. Many -- including Dan Snyder of the Redskins and Shahid Khan of the Jaguars -- physically stood arm and arm with their players during the anthem.)
    But those facts don't change the misguided idea behind Mnuchin's free speech comment. We don't limit speech in this country. Even if it's speech you or I disagree with. Especially when it's speech you or I disagree with.
    That's the whole damn point of the country. People get to say what they want. And they have to deal with the consequences of those words and actions. That's true 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Not just in your off-work hours.