Fired college football coach who removed BLM poster files lawsuit, claims First Amendment rights violated

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A college football coach is suing his former bosses in federal court after he was allegedly fired for failing to toe the Black Lives Matter party line.

Kurt Beathard, the ex-offensive coordinator for the Illinois State University Redbirds, reportedly posted a sign on his office door that his superiors found offensive.

He claims that upon returning to work after bereavement leave (his wife had tragically passed away from breast cancer) in August 2020, he found a Black Lives Matter poster taped to his door. Other coaches had apparently taped similar posters to their own doors as an expression of solidarity with the social justice movement.

Beathard, who is the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Beathard, reportedly replaced the BLM signage with a poster that read, “All Lives Matter to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The sign was in place for about two weeks, with Beathard saying that he took it down after ISU head coach Brock Spack asked him to do so. The lawsuit reportedly alleged that he was let go just a few days later, however, on September 2.

The former coach claimed that Coach Spack and then-Athletic Director Larry Lyons, who purportedly authorized the termination, violated his First Amendment rights. Illinois State is a publicly funded institution, and thus the constitutional free-speech and/or freedom of religion protections embodied in the First Amendment does apply, at least as a threshold matter.

As with any litigation, however, evidence must follow. As a side note, employment disputes often result in out-of-court settlements.

Interestingly, Beathard, who is suing Spack and Lyons, at the moment does not appear to have named Illinois State as a defendant, even under standard legal doctrine, the employer is generally responsible for the on-the-clock acts or omissions of workers. Illinois State undoubtedly also has deeper pockets, as they say in the legal industry, than two individuals. Individual liability may or may not apply to individual employees depending upon the facts, circumstances, and applicable law.

Attorney Doug Churdar, the plaintiff’s attorney, summarized the case as as he sees it in a news release according to the Chicago Tribune:

“It’s come to this. If you put the government’s message on your door, you keep your job. If you replace it with your own message, you’re fired. That’s exactly what happened. There’s only one reason Beathard isn’t offensive coordinator at ISU: he did not toe the party line on BLM.”

 

The situation at the Normal, Ill.-based institution was not necessarily normal last summer, with intense social justice sensitivities and activism sweeping many of America’s campuses owing to several high-profile instances of police misconduct that have been extensively chronicled.

Beathard’s employment might have, however, been collateral damage, in the aftermath of a comment made by Lyons that supposedly triggered some of the players, the Tribune recalled:

On or around Aug. 27, 2020, Lyons led a Zoom meeting with student-athletes to encourage unity. Toward the end of the meeting, Lyons said “All Redbirds Lives Matter,” according to the lawsuit…

Lyons’ message was not received well by some of the athletes, which led to an apology by Lyons, the suit said. He retired from ISU roughly a month later in October 2020.

A campuswide boycott ensued and a list of demands was created by ISU students. One of the demands was for the department of athletics to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement…

About two days after the Lyons’ meeting, Beathard was approached by Spack and he was asked to remove the sign he created from his door, according to the lawsuit. Beathard took the poster down that day.

But a colleague of Beathard’s shared a picture of the poster he recently took down. In response, some football players boycotted practice, according to the lawsuit.

A few days later, Beathard was fired.

 

Beathard also claims that Spack allegedly opined to him that the BLM movement on campus was “‘freaking nuts’ when welcoming Beathard back to ISU, according to the lawsuit.” He is apparently seeking money damages in court for lost income as well as for mental and emotional distress.

Reacting to the controversy in October 2020, Fox News host Laura Ingraham asserted perhaps prophetically, “I imagine the coach has a strong claim, a religious bias claim. If they get any state funding, they’re in trouble. I hope he has a good lawyer.”

Robert Jonathan

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