Who’s on First?

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Reverend Martin Niemoller, World War One German submarine commander turned Lutheran pastor who spent World War Two in a Nazi concentration camp for opposing Hitler.  Today he’s best known for a poem he wrote, one version of which goes as follows:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller’s point, of course,  was that whenever we try to suppress the rights of others, we endanger our own rights as well.  We must, therefore, protect and respect others’ rights to increase the chances that our own will be respected as well.

I could not help thinking of Niemoller as I went through my Facebook news feed and read of various First Amendment-related happenings.  For example, as NFL pre-season games are being played, and the beginning of the regular season begins, talk about past and possibly future instances of players “taking the knee” are becoming more and more frequent.  On Facebook, there are more criticisms of players for being rich, spoiled, and frequently possessing arrest records, as well as memes contrasting them with police officers, soldiers, and others who have risked their lives for the players’ right to kneel, rather than stand, for the playing of the National Anthem. 

Whatever one thinks of the players’ actions, it must be said that they’re at least peaceful and protected by the First Amendment from government interference (since the First Amendment limits only governments from interfering with freedom of speech, the team owners may have the right to forbid their players from protesting though).  Of course, the players’ critics are also protected by the First Amendment as well.

And then there’s another First Amendment case that’s returned to the news—that of Jack Phillips, the Colorado cake baker, whose refusal to bake a cake celebrating a gay wedding led him and his adversaries to the United States Supreme Court earlier this year.

You may recall that Phillips went to court after the Colorado Civil Rights Commission sought to punish him for refusing to bake the gay couple’s cake.  Phillips claimed that being forced to do so would have violated his First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion.  The Supreme Court agreed, noting that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had supported the rights of other bakers to refuse to bake and design cakes with messages they deemed offensive (the messages in question were allegedly homophobic) and that also that the Commission had remained silent when one of its members expressed extreme hostility toward Christianity:  She equated it with Nazism, and said Phillips’s refusal to bake a cake was the equivalent of the Holocaust. 

But now Phillips is back in the federal courts following Colorado’s decision to punish him for refusing to bake a cake for an attorney, born male, who wants to celebrate becoming a female.  And there is credible evidence that Phillips has been set up.  Since winning his first Supreme Court case he has been asked to bake cakes to celebrate Satanism and to use sex toys as decorations.  There is credible evidence that all these requests have come from the attorney whose complaint the state of Colorado supports.

So those who wish to end the protests of the NFL players should realize that whenever you suppress one person’s—or group’s—right to use the First Amendment, you create a precedent by which the rights of others to use the First Amendment are weakened as well.  In the case of the NFL players, a far better course of action would be to investigate and determine the degree to which their protests are supported by the facts, use the power of government to address their legitimate grievances, if any, and use the First Amendment to rebut, refute, and criticize their less accurate assertions.

And respecting and using the First Amendment will strengthen it as a tool by which Jack Phillips and other victims—and potential victims—of governmental persecution may fight back as well.  Who knows?  Someday we may all need it to protect our own rights as well. 


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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