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Policy Shift From University Follows Action by Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law and Benefits Cheerleaders Who Choose to Take a Knee During the National Anthem

Washington, D.C. – On Wednesday, Samuel Olens, President of Kennesaw State University issued a university-wide statement announcing a policy shift that makes clear the school will respect the rights of students to protest during school events.  The announcement came after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Cobb County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called on the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to immediately investigate Kennesaw State University’s (KSU) retaliation against members of the school cheerleading squad who chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police violence against African Americans.  

“The cheerleaders of Kennesaw State University, and other students at public educational institutions across the country, are exercising their First Amendment rights to call attention to issues such as racial injustice and police violence against African Americans.  The Supreme Court has made clear these students’ rights are protected by the First Amendment, and the leadership of Kennesaw State University has made clear they will respect the law,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We will continue our work to ensure that the rights of students at public institutions are respected across the country.”

On September 30th, several KSU cheerleaders knelt during the national anthem at a university football game.  In the days that followed, news reports indicated that local Sheriff Neil Warren and State Representative Earl Ehrhart—the chairman of the committee overseeing KSU’s budget—contacted KSU President Sam Olens to stifle the protests.  Representative Ehrhart reportedly described the protests as “repugnant and hateful.”  The University then prevented the cheerleaders from being on the field during the national anthem, prompting multiple community rallies and marches around campus in support of the cheerleaders’ free speech rights.  On October 24th, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the SCLC wrote to the Board of Regents to request an immediate investigation into the matter, demand that KSU cease any disciplinary or retaliatory action against the cheerleaders, and seek assurance that the University will fully respect the constitutional rights of its students.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently protected the First Amendment rights of students, observing that they do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  For over 70 years, the Court has held that it is illegal for public schools, like KSU, to punish students for refusing to participate in forced patriotic ceremonies like the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem.  Denying the KSU cheerleading squad the opportunity to be present during our national anthem unless they comply with President Olens’ preferred method of observance is not an act of patriotism; it is an act of retaliation.

Read the October 24, 2017 letter from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the SCLC to the Board of Regents here. 


About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination.  Now in its 54th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest “Move America Toward Justice.”  The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.