A former cheerleader of Kennesaw State University is suing her university and Georgia state officials for violating her civil rights and curbing her freedom of speech.
Tommia Dean and four other African-American cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem, following San Francisco 49ers’ former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s example against police brutality and racial inequality, at the start of a game. Soon after their act of defiance, the women witnessed changes in their pre-game schedule that ensured they remain inside the locker room while the national anthem was played.
Rep Earl Ehrhart, Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives responsible for allocating funds to the state’s colleges and universities, reportedly called athletic director Scott Whitlock on Oct. 1 2017 and told him the cheerleaders should not be allowed to kneel.
On Oct. 2, the then-president of KSU and former Attorney General of Georgia Samuel Olens was informed by the University System of Georgia, on the advice of Attorney General Chris Carr, that he could not stop the students from protesting as long as the expression was not disruptive.
However, when Ehrhart and Sheriff of Cobb county Neil Warren pushed Olens and other members of the athletic department on the issue, the KSU president buckled to the pressure.
Warren and Ehrhart both took full credit for stopping the protest.
“Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl [Ehrhart] and I gave him [Olens]!” Warren wrote in a text message, according to the suit.
Ehrhart replied, “He [Olens] had to be dragged there, but with you and I pushing he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism my friend.”
However on Nov. 8, 2017, Olens reversed the decisions after the backlash from students, faculty and the Board of Regents.
“While I believe there are more effective ways to initiate an exchange of ideas on issues of national concern, the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment must be protected,” Olens wrote.
Dean filed the lawsuit against the university and the people involved in the changes last Wednesday.
It asserts that Dean suffered from increased migraines and emotional stress “over the loss of her constitutional rights.”
The suit alleged the defendants showed “recklessness or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others” and were “participating in a private conspiracy actionable under the Ku Klux Klan Act” of 1871. The law was passed by Congress during the Southern Reconstruction when private citizens often put pressure on government representatives, often sheriffs, to prevent the integration of African Americans, often through violent, terroristic means, after the Civil War.
Last year, the five students said they did not uphold the protest on a whim. They prayed and discussed the protest for a week with their friends, families and other cheerleaders. They then decided taking a stance against racism would be the right thing to do.
“I feel as though it was nothing to disrespect America, which is why when we took the knee, we still made it a point to have our hands on our heart, but we just wanted to take the knee in the name of equality. That in a way is a love for this country, because we are using our freedom,” one of the cheerleaders told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In an interview with The Root, one of the cheerleaders said taking a knee was “the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
All five cheerleaders tried out for the cheerleading squad this year. Only one senior, Shlondra Young, made the team.
Banner/Thumbnail Credits: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images