First Amendment Rights & the Kennesaw State Settlement

Former Kennesaw State University cheerleader Tommia Dean, who was punished for taking a knee during the national anthem at a college football game, was just awarded a $145,000 settlement.

Dean, as well as several other cheerleaders, took a knee during the national anthem in September 2017, and were later prohibited from being on the field during the anthem for two future games. Dean filed the lawsuit one year later against the president of Kennesaw State, Samuel s. Olens, two men from the school’s athletic dept., the sheriff of Cobb County, GA, and former Republican state legislator Earl Ehrhart, accusing the defendants of conspiring to violate her First Amendment rights.

According to a copy of the settlement provided to The New York Times, the agreement was to “buy peace of mind from future controversy and forestall future lawyer fees.” However, with that settlement came a statement that the damages paid were in no way an admission of guilt from the defendants. So, while this clearly was a violation of her First Amendment rights, and she luckily was awarded damages, unfortunately this cannot set a precedent for future cases like it.

National anthem protests are an important right, and since Colin Kaepernick lit the flame in the NFL in 2016, it has been a subject for national debate. At first, these protests did not generally spread through college football, as most do not have players on the sidelines during the anthem, but in 2017, Howard’s cheerleading team has performed its own protest. Howard’s pregame program has also long included the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which according to the Times has become known as the black national anthem.

But while protests like Howard’s are important, protests at schools like Kennesaw State are also extremely important, especially when those that do protest are essentially issued a prior restraint in order to effectively shut them up. And as a state school, they cannot violate their students’ First Amendment rights like this.

Without an admission of guilt, this is something that the court is allowing Kennesaw State to do again, until somebody else has the strength to protest again knowing the possible consequences, as well as the resources and knowledge to sue again if need be.

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