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11th Circuit tosses Georgia cheerleader’s anthem protest case against sheriff

The 11th Circuit handed a Georgia sheriff a victory by finding a Kennesaw State University cheerleader lacks standing to bring civil rights claims against him.

(CN) — The 11th Circuit affirmed a federal judge's dismissal of a former cheerleader’s lawsuit against a Georgia sheriff she says conspired to silence her after she kneeled in protest during the national anthem.

Tommia Dean, who was a cheerleader at Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Georgia, kneeled during the national anthem at one of the university’s football games. 

Dean's demonstration, which a handful of teammates joined, was part of a national movement to bring attention to police brutality against Black Americans and to advance racial justice. 

In 2018, Dean sued former Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, whom she says was involved in pressuring the school to punish the cheerleaders involved in the quiet protest. 

Claiming the school violated her civil rights, she also sued former KSU President Sam Olens, former state Representative Earl Ehrhart and two athletic directors. She said Warren and Ehrhart took part in a racially motivated conspiracy to violate her First Amendment rights by pressuring Olens to stop the kneeling during football games.

According to Dean, Ehrhart pressured the school to make a rule that cheerleaders were no longer allowed on the field during the national anthem. Olens, however, abolished the rule about a month later. 

A federal judge dismissed the claims against Sheriff Warren, finding Dean failed to plausibly allege that the sheriff “possessed the requisite class-based animus.” Though the cheerleader settled the case for $145,000 in 2019, she appealed the dismissal of her claims against Warren.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor, who penned Thursday’s opinion, said the 11th Circuit panel agreed with the dismissal.

“We therefore affirm the district court’s order dismissing Dean’s claim against Warren,” wrote the Barack Obama nominee.

Pryor clarified that Dean had “alleged a political class-based theory of animus — that Warren undertook the conspiracy because of her membership in a political class, namely, the class of people protesting police brutality against African Americans.”

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, appointed by George H.W. Bush, joined Thursday’s opinion.

They found Dean failed to provide sufficient evidence related to her claim that Warren engaged in a conspiracy to stop the protests due to its racial message. 

Pryor added in concurrence that “Because the Free Speech Clause does not restrict government speech, Kennesaw State University did not violate her First Amendment rights when it prevented her from kneeling on the field.”

Follow Erika Williams on Twitter

Categories:Appeals, Civil Rights

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