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Protest proves freedom reigns

Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith faces away from the flag during the national anthem, in protest of America's policy toward Iraq. Her demonstrations haven't gone unchallenged. One fan screamed from the stands, calling her a "----- traitor." A Vietnam veteran charged the court, waving a flag in her face and shouting she had not earned the right to disrespect the flag.

On another occasion, hundreds of Merchant Marine cadets chanted "Leave our country!"

Yet she continues to follow her conscience. Previously an obscure athlete at a tiny college, she has become a focal point of the debate over whether the U.S. should go to war.

Though she is 2,200 miles from where I am writing this, I'm cheering anyway.

Smith isn't a grandstander, by most indications. She hasn't shopped her story to the TV talk shows, or offered to sell the book rights. As far as I know, there is no movie deal in the works. She

had been protesting for several games before the national news media discovered her.

So far, all she has done is turn away from the flag, yet the decision has ignited high emotion on both sides. University of Virginia basketball player Deidra Chatman added support by facing away from the flag over the weekend. Later she said she would no longer protest that way, because it was a distraction to the team.

As the anti-war movement grows, a team from another part of the world is staging a protest of its own. The Iranian national wrestling team is skipping the world freestyle championships, to be held in New York next September. The Iranians say they object to being fingerprinted upon entering the country and find it "humiliating and insulting," according to an official spokesman.

Curious, considering most international athletes are routinely subjected to drug testing, which seems far more humiliating and insulting than fingerprinting.

I haven't seen any quotes yet from Iranian wrestlers about missing the world championships, and I don't expect to. In America when you object to government policy, you could be heckled by opponents. In Iran, the wrong stance might cost your life.

Which brings us back to Smith and her controversial stand. Is she a traitor, or just unwilling to support a war in Iraq?

She is this: A living example of the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

"It is irrelevant whether I, or anyone else, agree or disagree with Ms. Smith's position. Her right of expression is fundamental," said Manhattanville College President Richard A. Berman in a web site statement.

In that sense, Smith has done all Americans a favor. She has demonstrated in this country there is still a place for free speech. There is also a free press to get her message out. In some nations, neither anti-government protesting nor reporting about it is allowed.

In America, even unknown small-college basketball players have a voice.

"I did it for my own self-respect and conscience. My stance is not a personal attack on Vietnam veterans or any war veterans. I know the flag represents people who have died for this country, and I support them. But the flag means different things to everyone," Smith told The New York Times.

It means we can disagree without fear of being jailed.

I'm not cheering because Smith turned her back to the flag. But I'm not cheering the prospect of war, either. I'm simply convinced Saddam is a tyrant who will never stop trying to destroy the freedoms that allow Smith to protest.

I'm cheering because even though I agree with the president — that Saddam Hussein must be stopped — those who disagree can do so without having their fingers cut off. Here we can oppose the government's policies as citizens.

So from the other side of the country, I'm cheering.

Not for Toni Smith.

I'm cheering for America.