NEW YORK—Indications of interference by public officials in cheerleaders’ protests at Kennesaw State University in Georgia are an alarming infringement on First Amendment rights, PEN America said in a statement today. 

On September 30, five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders knelt while the national anthem played before a football game against North Greenville University. At subsequent football games, all cheerleaders were kept in a stadium tunnel, though the school claims this policy change is unrelated to the protests.

Investigations into this policy change by local outlets including WXIA-TV have revealed text exchanges between state representative Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) and sheriff Neil Warren indicating both anger at the protests and efforts to prevent such protests from taking place in future. In these exchanges, Warren offered Ehrhart his assistance to “help… stop this BS on taxpayer-funded college campuses.” Later, following a conversation between Warren and Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens, Warren informed Ehrhart that Olens had assured him “that the cheerleaders will not be on the field from now on.” Ehrhart thanked him for “always standing up to these liberal[s] that hate the USA,” and congratulated their efforts: “[Olens] had to be dragged there, but with you and I pushing, he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism, my friend.” Earl Ehrhart chairs the state’s House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, which controls funding for Kennesaw State University. Ehrhart had since argued that his comments were made “as a private citizen.”

“While the NFL is a private organization that is not directly subject to the First Amendment, when it comes to a public university it is crystal-clear that constitutional protections for free speech apply,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “For university officials and lawmakers to use their power to punish students for peaceful expression and deprive them of the opportunity to demonstrate would represent a clear infringement on their fundamental right and a distortion of the role of the university in American life. The very purpose of a public university is to act as an open forum for the expression of ideas—for those in leadership roles to take it upon themselves to dictate the permissible bounds of peaceful expression is inconsistent with their duties and unconstitutional.”

On Tuesday, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Cobb County chapter and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a letter to the school’s Board of Regents demanding an investigation into the policy change and interference from Ehrhart and Warren. The Board of Regents is conducting a review, and Sam Olens has issued an apology, welcoming “the opportunity to meet with the cheerleaders and any student who wishes to participate in a discussion about how we can work together to continue to make KSU a university of which we are all proud.”

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT
Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: agasparian@pen.org, +1.646.981.0685