Virginia Tech student Kierstien Hening’s lawsuit begins with a simple statement: “Kierstien Hening refused to kneel.” In the lawsuit filed this week against Virginia Tech soccer coach Charles “Chugger” Adair (in his official capacity) It is alleged that when Hening refused to kneel and support Black Lives Matter, she was benched, molested, and eventually pushed off the team. If the claims are true, it could not only have a winning case, but also one that could set an important precedent for freedom of expression.
Adair implemented changes following a diversity training mandate prescribed by the Atlantic Coast Conference. We have seen such mandatory training programs in colleges and businesses – programs that can raise concerns about forced language and point of view discrimination. As a state school, Virginia Tech is subject to restrictions imposed by the government as part of the first amendment.
Hening claims Adair wanted the student to emulate former NFL Colin Kaepernick kneeling before the games and wanted to replace the name “Hokies” on the back of their shirts with the names of people killed by police.
During the meetings, Hening disapproved of the changes as a forced speech, saying that she disagreed with aspects of the BLM movement. She was then reportedly referred to as a “racist” by some on the team.
The complaint says that only two students objected to kneeling, but their other student received a scholarship and her parents called Adair to warn him not to molest their daughter about her political views. Instead, according to Hening, Adair singled them out and spoke negatively about some people who believe that “all life is important”. She says her refusal to kneel resulted in her going to the bench and eventually being removed from the team. It also reportedly led to a stream of verbal and social media abuse.
The complaint alleges that Adair singled out during halftime of a game with Virginia Hening and mocked her in front of the team and denounced her as selfish and “moaning and moaning” rather than being a team player in support of the diversity displays. She was drawn as the starter in the next game against Clemson and Adair allegedly cursed her again in public. She was also excluded from the starters in the next game against North Carolina. She claims the abuse and avoidance have grown so great that she has been forced to resign.
One problem could be that she has decided to resign. The school can argue that it was allowed to refuse to attend the exhibitions and that the decision to use players is at the discretion of a coach. She actually played, but not as a starter or not very long in these games. In addition, she only resigned after a few games, instead of addressing the problem to the university and allowing time for a solution.
However, the complaint alleges clear forms of retaliation and harassment against a student for her political and social views. If so, Adair used his position to pressure and abuse a student for not adhering to the preferred view of BLM and diversity displays.
We have discussed students and teachers who disagree with aspects of the BLM, while supporting the movement for races alike. There has been a growing intolerance of such dissenting views. In Berkeley, an anonymous letter from a faculty member (feared retaliation) was condemned by colleagues. At UChicago, a well-respected academic was the subject of a campaign to resign simply for criticizing BLM and questioning allegations of police abuse. A University of Pennsylvania professor faced demands for his resignation when he questioned an anti-racism statement. A Harvard professor was the subject of one such campaign to question support for some allegations of police abuse. A UCF professor was placed under police protection after challenging certain claims as “black privilege”. A Cornell professor was attacked by his own colleagues for expressing dissenting views on BLM and the underlying claims. A professor from Virginia had to take a leave of absence after criticizing BLM. Even students have been formally sentenced for criticizing the BLM movement or questioning its claims, as recently controversially discussed in Georgetown. New York college students, including Cornell, have faced such retaliation for their views. A student columnist from Wisconsin was fired for expressing conflicting views on defusing the police.
Few faculties or students want to face such campaigns or labels. For its part, BLM has even described criticism of the property purchases by one of its founders as “terror by white supremacists”.
The student orientation is particularly worrying. Instead of using his position to re-affirm that there can be different views on a team, Adair is accused of using his position to isolate and abuse that student.
This controversy shows why it is increasingly uncomfortable for students to speak freely at our locations. We previously discussed a Gallup poll that found ninety percent of Pomona students said they didn’t feel free to speak openly or freely. It’s an indictment not just against Pomona, but against many of our colleges. This is not a problem for many students, but an ever decreasing percentage of self-identified conservatives. A recent poll shows that the already small number of Conservative and Republican students has been reduced by about half. The Crimson poll included over 76 percent of the Harvard College class by 2024 and found that the class had 72.4 percent who identified themselves as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal”. Only 7.4 percent identify themselves as “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative”. Another Harvard study showed that 35 percent of Conservatives felt they could share their views on campus.
Again, Adair and Virginia Tech have not yet responded to this lawsuit. However, from my point of view, the allegations are extremely serious from a freedom of speech perspective. The allegations have a crushing irony. Kaepernick was allowed to kneel in protest in the NFL. Now, however, students are complaining that they cannot stand for the anthem without retribution and harassment.
The complaint should be sufficient for a motion to dismiss, unless the court deems the resignation to be decisive. I don’t understand why it should be, as Hening is still claiming a state actor abuse pattern. If this were a determining factor, most of the employment discrimination cases that resulted in a person leaving would not be open to challenge as they were not waiting to be fired. If Hening makes it through the dismissal application, she may discover emails and other possible evidence of Adair and his staff’s reaction to this dissenting student.