Illinois State University officials failed to shake off retaliation claims by the football team’s former offensive coordinator who says he was terminated for posting an “all lives matter” sign on his office door, after a federal court found he was engaged in private speech protected by the First Amendment.
When a public employee makes a statement pursuant to their official job duties they aren’t protected by the First Amendment, Judge James E. Shadid of the US District Court for the Central District of Illinois said Thursday.
But head coach Brock Spack, then-athletic director Larry Lyons, and current athletic director Kyle Brennan failed to show that Kurt Beathard was acting within the scope of his official duties when he posted the message on his door, the judge said, denying the officials’ motion to dismiss.
Beathard wasn’t paid by the university to decorate his door, but was paid to coach football, Shadid said. In putting up the poster, Beathard was therefore expressing his personal views, the judge said.
The court cited a recent US Supreme Court ruling that a high school coach who prayed after a game was engaged in private speech and that the school violated his First Amendment rights by firing him.
Beathard also showed that his protected speech was at least a motivating factor in his termination, Shadid said.
It’s premature, however, to determine whether the university can justify firing Beathard because “there is not enough information to properly weigh” the interests of the school against the interests of Beathard as a public employee in commenting on matters of public concern, the judge said.
The defendants argued in a March 31 filing that “the university’s interests in addressing student-athlete response” to Beathard’s speech and “avoiding further disruption of football team functioning” outweigh Beathard’s speech interests,
In late summer and fall of 2020 the ISU “campus community was dealing with tension resulting from the death of George Floyd,” according to Beathard’s complaint.
In August, posters were printed supporting Black ISU student-athletes, including a football player, and several football coaches placed them on their office doors within the football facility.
Beathard alleges that someone placed one of the posters on his door without his permission. Beathard admits he removed the poster and replaced it with a handwritten sign saying “all lives matter to our lord & saviour Jesus Christ.”
The message “upset some of the football players,” and some boycotted practice on Sept. 1, 2020, according to the complaint.
The next day Spack informed Beathard he would be replaced as offensive coordinator, the complaint alleges.
Beathard was then “reassigned to a completely bogus and made-up position, where he worked from home until his contract ran out at the end of 2020,” according to the complaint.
Doug Churdar of Greenville, S.C., and Finegan Rinker & Ghrist represent Beathard.
Husch Blackwell LLP represents the defendants.
The case is Beathard v. Lyons, C.D. Ill., No. 21-cv-01352, 8/11/22.