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Analysis: Pence once called a protest the sound of freedom, but he …

With his decision to leave Sunday’s Indianapolis Colts game after players knelt during the national anthem, it appears that Vice President Mike Pence is becoming well-versed in the art of walking out. 

Just less than a year ago, in November, he arrived for a performance of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, greeted by a mix of boos and cheers. After the show, several dozen of the musical’s cast members zeroed in on Pence as he was getting up to leave. 

“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening,” said Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Aaron Burr. “And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments.” 

Dixon proceeded to share a message about cast members’ concern that the incoming administration would fail to protect the “diverse America” and uphold the inalienable rights of its citizens, despite race or sexual orientation. Pence reportedly was leaving the auditorium before Dixon finished speaking, but said he heard the full message. 

There were protesters outside the theater, too — but they didn’t bother Pence. He was quick to stand up for the crowd and the actors’ rights to free speech. 

“I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like,” Pence said at the time. 

Then, in May, Pence watched as about 100 students walked out of the University of Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony during his commencement speech. They left quietly, met by some cheers and boos, though only briefly. Again, Pence came to their defense, referencing the First Amendment. 

“The increasing intolerance and suppression of the time-honored tradition of free expression on our campuses jeopardizes the liberties of every American,” he said in his same speech. “This should not and must not be met with silence.” 

On Sunday, Pence was at the front and center of another walkout — his own — choosing to leave the Colts game on President Donald Trump’s instructions after more than a dozen San Francisco 49ers players took a knee during the anthem. Many NFL players have done so to raise awareness of social injustice and racial inequality. Members of the Colts stood for the anthem with arms linked. 

Pence said he chose to leave because “we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us.” 

This time, there was no mention of freedom of speech, or any other aspect of the First Amendment. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem,” Pence said in a statement. 

In the past, Pence has been vocal about freedom of expression. While serving in Congress, he repeatedly co-sponsored versions of the Free Flow of Information Act, first introduced before Congress in 2005. It aimed to prevent federal entities from forcing a “covered person,” such as a journalist, from disclosing their sources unless ruled by court. 

He co-sponsored the legislation a few times, and while it never became law, his advocacy for news media earned him praise from journalists, including an award from a newspaper association. 

In 2007, he told the Columbia Journalism Review that he became a supporter of the act after reading about Judith Miller’s 2005 jailing in the New York Times. He told the Review that he developed “a very healthy appreciation for the work that journalists do, and the public good that a free and independent press represents.” 

But while Pence has a track record for supporting free speech, it’s a muddled one. As Indiana governor, he is known to have stonewalled public records requests, often delaying their release of denying them entirely. 

He also found himself rebuked by free speech advocates because of a widely criticized plan to create a taxpayer-funded news service, and because his staff deleted Facebook comments that disagreed with his stance on same-sex marriage. 

To this day, a Facebook page called Pencership exists. 

In March, news broke that Pence, also while governor, used his personal email account while conducting state business. The Indianapolis Star first reported it following a months-long effort to access emails from Pence’s AOL account. 

Around the same time, Pence sat through the jokes and musical skits that targeted Trump and his advisers’ headline-making contacts with Russia at the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club, an elite group of 65 of Washington’s top journalists. He attended the swanky but lighthearted affair in Trump’s place after Trump declined. 

As in other instances, Pence said at the dinner that he and the president “support the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment.”

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