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Documentary on 1969 student-athlete protest paves way for better solutions

In a short documentary detailing one of the earliest student-athlete free speech cases, filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe and producer Spike Lee tell the story of 14 University of Wyoming football players dismissed from the team for asking their coach’s permission to protest on the field. The documentary and the 1972 court case it describes parallel the student-athlete protests of today and asks whether the benefits of hindsight can offer a better solution.

Black 14” is about 14 African-American UW football players who asked their coach for permission to wear black armbands on the field in their upcoming game against Brigham Young University in 1969. The players sought to protest the race-based policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, which owns and operates BYU. After they presented their plan to their coach prior to the BYU game, the coach dismissed them from the team — a decision UW ratified after meetings with the players, the board of trustees, the university president, and even the governor of Wyoming. The players continued to speak out after their dismissal, and eventually filed a lawsuit in federal court.

In “Black 14,” archival footage depicts the community’s response to the players’ actions — a reaction driven in part by the lopsided losses taken by UW’s nationally-ranked program after losing the 14 players. Although some sympathized with the players, the videos show overwhelming support for the coach, with crowds wearing armbands bearing his name.

The documentary concludes by summarizing the result of their lawsuit, in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled against the students. The court found that if UW allowed them to wear the armbands on the field against BYU, they would be representing UW’s lack of neutrality toward the religious school, and this would violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause requirement that state institutions remain neutral in matters of religion. Without the benefit of decades of favorable cases establishing the free speech rights of college students, the players’ claims were rejected by the court.

The decision is part of an unfortunate line of cases holding that student-athletes have diminished free speech rights. To this very day, student-athletes seeking to speak out against injustice have suffered the same community backlash and university punishment as the UW players in 1969 Wyoming. Inspired by the symbolic protest of professional football players kneeling during the national anthem, today’s student-athletes face the same choice the 14 UW football players faced almost 40 years ago — protest or play.

While many see only unpleasantness in the intermingling of sports and political protest, we at FIRE see an opportunity to learn from “Black 14” and the last four decades of student-athlete protests. Through our Statement on College Student-Athletes’ Free Speech Rights, we offer universities a way to uphold their commitments to free speech while maintaining the integrity of their athletic programs. Informed by the law and mindful of difficulties of balancing a team’s need for order and a student’s expressive freedoms, our solution is an alternative to the protracted bitterness and litigation that censorship invites. It contains principles on whistleblowing, compelled political and religious speech, privacy, and other guideposts to help colleges navigate issues with student-athlete expression.

For example, our statement recognizes that “[p]articipation in college athletics likely entails accepting certain limitations on expressive activity that are reasonably necessary for the regular functioning of athletic programs.” However, “[c]olleges may not compel student-athletes to engage in political or religious speech” or impose “content- and viewpoint-based mandates to engage in political or religious expression.” In this manner, colleges can exercise the control necessary to run their athletic department, but may not force students to engage in patriotic acts merely for the sake of conformity.

We urge universities to consider “Black 14” as well as our statement, and we stand by ready to help make their athletic programs better places for free speech.

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