Tommia Dean, a former cheerleader at Kennesaw State University, is suing KSU and Georgia State officials for their response to her protest of police brutality and racial injustices during the national anthem.
Last September, Dean and four other KSU cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem, an extension of the movement started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
But the lawsuit alleges that after they knelt, the sheriff and a powerful government official in Georgia and the Sherriff conspired to pressure the then-president of KSU, Samuel Olens, to change the pre-game schedule to ensure that cheerleaders remained in the locker room during the anthem, just like football players traditionally did in Georgia.
The lawsuit says that this “constituted a conspiracy … to deprive Plaintiff Dean of her constitutional rights” and showcased “recklessness or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.” Additionally, the lawsuit is accusing Earl Ehrhart, a Georgia state representative, and Neil Warren, the Sheriff of Cobb County, of “participating in a private conspiracy actionable under the Ku Klux Klan Act,” since Ehrhart and Warren were targeting the protesting cheerleaders because they are African Americans protesting racism.
In an interview last year, the five cheerleaders said they did not make the decision to take a knee on a whim; it took weeks of prayer and discussion with each other, their parents, and other cheerleaders. But ultimately, they felt they needed to make a statement against racism.
“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 another interview, one of the cheerleaders called taking a knee “the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
Olens was not at the football game when the protest began, but was notified of it soon thereafter due to the backlash — and support — in the community. The lawsuit says that Olens was very aware of KSU policy, which specifically protects freedom of expression, even if that expression contradicts “personal views of university employees and students.” In the week after the protest, Olens was also informed by the University System of Georgia that students should not be prohibited from kneeling during the national anthem.
However, when Ehrhart and Warren started pressuring Olens and other members of the athletic department at KSU to make the protests stop, he quickly caved.
The lawsuit says that Ehrhart is the chairman of the House Committee that determines the budget for the University of Georgia System, which includes KSU, and that he describes himself as the “funding source” for the University System. So, he definitely carried a lot of influence.
On October 4, Whitlock informed KSU officials that cheerleaders would not be allowed on the field during the national anthem anymore.
“The only purpose of making the change was to appease defendants Ehrhart and Warren,” the suit contends. “At no prior home football game in KSU’s history had cheerleaders not been on the field during the playing of the national anthem.”
Warren and Ehrhart both took full credit for stopping this 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.
In a text to Warren, 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.”
On November 8, 2017, Olens reversed his decision due to pressure from students, faculty, and the Board of Regents. From then on, the cheerleaders were back on the field during the national anthem.
“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.
All five of the cheerleaders who took a knee last year tried out for the cheerleading squad at KSU this year; only one made the team.