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Federal court allows student-athlete’s free speech claim against the University of Cincinnati to proceed

Yesterday, a federal district court refused to dismiss a student-athlete’s First Amendment retaliation claim against the University of Cincinnati. The court ruled that former UC volleyballer Shalom Ifeanyi will be allowed to supplement her allegation that she was dismissed from the team in 2017 for criticizing her coach’s attempt to control her social media posts.

According to Ifeanyi’s lawsuit, UC Women’s Volleyball head coach Molly Alvey “began harassing and shaming Plaintiff about pictures she was posting on her personal social media accounts.” Ifeanyi claims Alvey said her online pictures were “too sexy” and “seductive,” demanding she take them down from Instagram. Ifeanyi initially complied with the request, but when her coach continued sending her text messages telling her to remove more photos, she objected to “being sexualized” and her coach’s “constant body shaming,” especially since her teammates posted much more revealing pictures that Alvey took no issue with.

Eight days after Ifeanyi sent a text message to her coach asking why she was being singled out, Alvey called Ifeanyi into her office and dismissed her from the team. This is despite Ifeanyi never missing a practice, putting in extra work with the coaches on off days, and being “awarded top performer of the week by the strength training coach” five days prior to getting kicked off the team, according to her complaint. Ifeanyi then sued UC for unlawfully retaliating against her for criticizing Alvey, among other claims.

In its decision, the United States District for the Southern District of Ohio found that Ifeanyi put forth sufficient evidence to establish a plausible First Amendment retaliation claim. The court held that Ifeanyi engaged in constitutionally protected speech, and that removal from the team and loss of her athletic scholarship “would tend to deter a person of ordinary firmness from engaging” in such expression. Since Alvey admitted that she received Ifeanyi’s text message and read it prior to their final meeting, the court held there was “at least an inference of causation” between her criticism and her dismissal.

Ifeanyi’s allegations, if true, evince a troubling disdain for student-athlete rights at UC. Universities should honor the expressive freedoms of student-athletes to the fullest extent possible, so long as the proper functioning of athletic programs is not impaired. Their voice lends a unique perspective on how these programs are run, especially when exposing improprieties and abuse. A student-athlete questioning her coach for “body shaming” student-athletes regarding photos posted on their personal social media accounts is exactly the kind of whistleblower expression colleges should foster and protect.

We’re glad to see the court give Ifeanyi a chance to develop her claims. Her early litigation success should encourage schools to protect the right of their student-athletes, which they can do by adhering to FIRE’s Statement on College Student-Athletes’ Free Speech Rights. We’ll be sure to keep our readers apprised of any updates.

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