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US Cheerleader Punished for Taking a Knee Is Awarded $145,000

22:25  08 december  2019
22:25  08 december  2019 Source:   nytimes.com

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A former Kennesaw State University cheerleader was awarded a $145,000 settlement two years after she faced repercussions for taking a knee during the national anthem at a college football game, court documents show.

Ezinne Okwuosa et al. sitting around a football ball: Tommia Dean, front center, is one of five cheerleaders who took a knee during the national anthem at a Kennesaw State University football game in 2017.© Cory Hancock/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press Tommia Dean, front center, is one of five cheerleaders who took a knee during the national anthem at a Kennesaw State University football game in 2017.

The former cheerleader, Tommia Dean, who is still a student at the Georgia university, received $93,000, and the remaining $52,000 was disbursed to her two lawyers, Bruce P. Brown and Randolph A. Mayer, for legal fees and expenses, according to the documents. News of the settlement, which was paid in October, was published on Wednesday by The Marietta Daily Journal.

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Ms. Dean, along with four other cheerleaders, took a knee during the national anthem at a football game on Sept. 30, 2017, the lawsuit said. According to the complaint, they were then prohibited from appearing on the field during the national anthem at two subsequent home football games.

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Ms. Dean filed the lawsuit in September 2018 against Samuel S. Olens, the school’s president at the time of the protest and a former Georgia attorney general; two men in the Kennesaw State athletic department; Sheriff Neil Warren of Cobb County, Ga.; and Earl Ehrhart, a former Republican state legislator. The suit accused the defendants of violating her First Amendment rights, and accused Sheriff Warren and Mr. Ehrhart specifically of conspiring to cause the violation of her civil rights by pressuring the university’s president to take action.

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Ms. Dean, who claimed in the lawsuit that she had suffered an increase in migraine headaches and emotional distress over the loss of her constitutional rights, sought unspecified damages.

Sheriff Warren and Mr. Ehrhart were dismissed from the lawsuit in February, but Mr. Brown said an appeal of the decision to dismiss the sheriff was underway.

“The appeal is important because it calls into question when private parties can be liable under the civil rights laws of causing a public official or conspiring with a public official to violate a citizen’s First Amendment rights,” Mr. Brown said.

This fall, Ms. Dean reached a settlement with the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, Mr. Brown said, and the $145,000 award was paid in October. The department did not immediately return a request for comment on Saturday.

The agreement was to “buy peace of mind from future controversy and forestall” future lawyer fees, according to a copy of the settlement provided to The New York Times. The agreement represents the “economic resolution of disputed claims,” it says, but is not an “admission, finding, conclusion, evidence or indication for any purposes whatsoever, that the K.S.U. defendants or Ehrhart acted contrary to the law.”

The university was made aware of the case’s resolution, Tammy DeMel, Kennesaw State’s assistant vice president for communications, said in a statement on Saturday that noted the settlement did not involve the university.

It is not unusual for the government to pay damage awards for civil rights violations by public officials, Mr. Brown said.

Asked what message his client wanted to send with her lawsuit, Mr. Brown said, “Kneeling during the national anthem is respectful and a completely appropriate protest that should be protected by the university under the First Amendment. It should not be prohibited or punished, ever.”

Aimee Ortiz contributed reporting.

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