A New Jersey high school has come under fire after holding a ceremony honoring law enforcement, military and first responders before a football game Friday night.
According to NJ.com, an organizer with the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union claimed the ceremony sent a “frightening message.”
Middletown police Deputy Chief Stephen Dollinger organized the event before a highly-anticipated game between Middletown High School South and Toms River High School North. It featured State Police Pipes and Drums of the Blue and Gold, state and local mounted units, personnel from all of the branches of the military and officers from several local offices.
The ceremony also honored a Linden police officer who was wounded in a shootout with Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who is accused of planting IEDs in Seaside Park, Elizabeth and New York City.
Dolliger also told the Asbury Park Press that the event was meant to respond to pro athletes who have taken a knee during the National Anthem, following the actions of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
"It's OK to stand up for social justice, inequality and reform," Dollinger told the paper. "It's another thing to not stand up for the national anthem."
Dollinger’s comments to the Asbury Park Press drew scrutiny from the ACLU chapter. The group sent a memo to Middletown High School South officials condemning the event. The letter was also signed by the Central Jersey Chapter of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Greater Long Brach NAACP.
"As initially described, the event appeared to honor police officers, veterans, service members, and first responders," the chapter wrote in the letter.
It continued, "It is a disservice to the students and players that an event that should focus on them, their families, and their communities is being used to send a message that people who express concerns about disparities in the criminal justice system are unwelcome, disloyal or unpatriotic.”
One ACLU organizer, Jasmine Crenshaw, claimed the event sent a “frightening message” that police wouldn’t tolerate people expressing views on the nation’s "history of unequal treatment and systematic oppression."
Dollinger contended that his words had been twisted and that the event was about honoring the country and men and women of law enforcement and the military.
ACLU policy counsel Dianna Houenou said in a statement that free speech was the group’s concern.
"We're happy to hear Deputy Chief Dollinger agrees that students can exercise their free speech at sporting events, including expressing their vies on social justice or choosing not to stand for the national anthem," she said.