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Thursday, November 24, 2016

And still more restrictions on student-athlete speech

So the Harvard soccer and Columbia wrestling teams were suspended over the speech--private schools all, dealing with arguably "official team" speech. Then four ULL football players were suspended over a "fuck Trump" video--justified by some as occurring in the locker room and thus in the team context.

Now we have four Kansas cheerleaders suspended over a snapchat photo in which three male cheerleaders were photographed standing side-by-side in what appear to be intentionally-ugly Christmas sweaters with the Kansas "K," over the message "Kkk go Trump." (Photo after the jump). The female cheerleader/photographer insists someone took her phone and posted the picture; the mother of one of the men insists they were old sweaters.

The photo apparently was taken at a dorm party. It was not in the locker room, not part of an official team or university function, and not made in any team-wide forum or context. Moreover, the photo cannot be squeezed into any category of unprotected expression and reflects, albeit in a snarky way, a political message. So we now have a clear case of treating student-athletes differently than their non-athlete classmates for First Amendment purposes even when they are speaking as students and not as athletes.

The only justification is if student-athletes are employees who speak for and represent the university--a tough sell, given the rest of the NCAA's agenda (as a commenter on a prior post noted). And even employees (including university employees) do not speak in their employment positions at all times and enjoy something closer to ordinary First Amendment protection when speaking as citizens on matters of public concern. We long ago rejected the Holmesian idea that "There may be a constitutional right to talk politics, but there is no constitutional right to be a policeman," at least as the First Amendment limit. We would similarly reject the idea that "There may be a constitutional right to speak, but there is no constitutional right to be a Kansas Jayhawk cheerleader." Somewhere there must be a point at which a student-athlete speaks for herself and not as the university, and thus cannot be stripped of her university position because of her private speech.

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Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 24, 2016 at 09:01 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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