Former ISU Football Coach Sues After Being Allegedly Fired Over the Replacement of a BLM Poster on his Door

There is a new free speech case filed against a university this month. A former Illinois State University (ISU) assistant football coach, Kurt Beathard, has sued IS head coach and the school’s former athletic director. Both are being sued in their official capacities for Beathard’s termination after he removed a Black Lives Matter poster from his door and replaced it with poster that read, “All Lives Matter to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The case raises significant free speech issues and could result in an important ruling under the First Amendment.

Beathard worked for roughly 25 years as a football coach. He was successful at ISU as an offense coach including the season of this controversy. Indeed, he was asked back to ISU to rebuild the offense. This is how his complaint describes what then unfolded:

15. In late Spring/early Summer 2020, Beathard’s wife became very sick with cancer and passed away on 6/13/20.

16. In late Summer 2020, Beathard returned to ISU. The campus community was dealing with tension resulting from the death of George Floyd.

17. By this time, Black Lives Matter was a movement on the ISU campus. Spack brought Beathard up to speed about the atmosphere on campus and informed him that “Black Lives Matter is freaking nuts.”

18. Throughout his career, Beathard has successfully worked with young men of all races. While he believes black lives matter, he is opposed to the Black Lives Matter organization because it was founded by self-described “trained Marxists,” it divides human beings by skin color, and it supports violence and property destruction.

19. During mid-August 2020, ISU’s Department of Athletics printed Black Lives Matter posters. Several football coaches put Black Lives Matter posters on their office doors. Someone put a Black Lives Matter poster on Beathard’s office door.

20. Beathard removed the Black Lives Matter poster from his office door and replaced it with his own message: “All Lives Matter to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Beathard’s poster was on his office door for less than two (2) weeks.

21. On or about 8/27/20, Lyons addressed ISU’s student athletes via zoom. During his address, in a well-intended attempt to foster unity, Lyons stated: “All Redbird Lives Matter.” Lyons’ statement was not well-received by the student athletes, and he became embroiled in controversy and apologized. (Coincidentally[?], Lyons announced his retirement approximately one (1) month later.)

22. On or about 8/29/20, Spack came to Beathard’s office and asked him to remove his poster – “All Lives Matter to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” After considering Spack’s request, Beathard removed his poster, and Spack thanked him.

23. By 8/30/20, some student athletes had put together a list of demands, one of which was that the Department of Athletics must publicly support Black Lives Matter.

24. On 8/31/20, the Department of Athletics responded by issuing an “Action Plan for Social Change,” wherein it announced its public support for Black Lives Matter. The Plan also promised “education” for Lyons, all athletic administrators, and coaches on “diversity, equity, and anti-racism.”

25. Meanwhile, another coach who wanted to replace Beathard as offensive coordinator had taken a picture of Beathard’s poster and shared it with the football players. Apparently, the picture upset some of the football players.

26. On 9/1/20, some of the football players boycotted practice. Spack came to Beathard’s office and informed him that it looked like Lyons was going to keep his job but that Beathard was in trouble over the poster.

27. On the morning of 9/2/20, Spack called Beathard into his office and informed him that he didn’t “like the direction of the offense” and that he was being terminated from his position as offensive coordinator. Spack’s explanation was 100% pretext. The offense had thrived under Beathard, and Spack had never complained about the direction of the offense.

28. Spack’s decision to terminate Beathard was authorized and supported by Lyons.

The obvious defense is that Beathard was fired over his performance as a coach. College football, like professional football, is notorious for staff changes both during and at the end of seasons. Coaches often are held accountable for the failures of a team. This could force a jury to delve into the relative strength of the offense to address the allegations of a pretextual termination.

This is why discovery is so key in these cases. Documents and depositions will indicate whether the signage controversy was the impetus for the termination rather than the performance of the offense on the field.

The other problem is the boycott and whether, regardless of the merits, the offense had broken down due to the conflict between Beathard and his players. Yet, the university guarantees employees that they retain free speech rights and, as a state school, Beathard has the protections afforded under the First Amendment.

Under the ISU Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination Policy, Beathard is guaranteed free speech:

“Illinois State University … is strongly committed to the ethical and legal principal that each member of the University Community enjoys the right to free speech. The right of free expression and the open exchange of ideas stimulates debate, promotes creativity, and is essential to a rich learning environment… As members of the University Community, students… and staff have a responsibility to respect others and show tolerance for opinions that differ from their own…”

The school however adds that “The value of free expression, however, may be undermined by certain acts of harassment and discrimination that may result in the deterioration of a quality learning, work, or campus community environment and therefore will not be tolerated.”

Beathard’s sign is not on its face an act of harassment or discrimination. It is the expression of a broader anti-discrimination viewpoint. I can understand why many feel that such broader expressions take away from the focus on black lives. That is a common objection but it is an objection that can be expressed within the same speech-tolerant environment that allows Beathard to share his own views and values.

That is why the university could be in a bind and may want to avoid a fight over the sign itself. It arranged for pro-BLM posters to be made available and had no problem with those who posted them on their doors. Yet, it was clearly not happy with the posting of an alternative message.

We have seen similar controversies arise at schools involving the removal of Blue Lives Matter flags, the barring of the sale of Back the Blue materials, or expressing “All Lives Matter.” (here and here and here). There is little clarity at most schools in the support for one cause and the opposition to another. That is the definition of content-based speech regulation. In some cases, faculty have been suspended or sent into training or education programs for racial sensitivity or put under investigation. Students have been suspended for saying “All Lives Matter.”

Professors have sought to ban students who oppose Black Lives matter. In Vermont, a principal was fired for questioning Black Lives Matter as an organization.

Conversely, we recently saw the suspension of a yearbook staff after it committed a section to Black Lives Matter. Likewise, two students were allegedly suspended for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to school.

In private companies, the content-based discrimination is even more stark. Recently, former Sacramento Kings announcer Grant Napear sued after being allegedly fired for tweeting “All Lives Matter.”

The key from a free speech perspective is neutrality. If one message is allowed, so too must be opposing or different messages. If you print or allow BLM posters to be posted on doors, you also must allow posters expressing alternative values. Many people do not support the BLM organization while supporting the underlying cause. Recently, for example, BLM announced a boycott of any white business during the holidays, a move viewed by many as racially discriminatory and socially divisive. Some people may feel uncomfortable with supporting BLM over past controversial positions (including past criticism of the “nuclear family structure”), but want to speak against all forms of discrimination.

In the end, my preference will come as no surprise to regulars on this free speech blog. I support faculty and students in displaying BLM posters and flags. I also support alternative messages and imagery. Free speech is the life’s blood of higher education. Tolerance for a diversity of values allows our schools to foster robust intellectual exchange. The worst situation is for schools to push or sponsor one viewpoint while harassing or punishing those with opposing viewpoints.

The Beathard lawsuit could force these issues into open court as the judge and jury address the rivaling claims.

Beathard brought the lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleging First Amendment retaliation/viewpoint discrimination. He is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief; nominal damages; compensatory damages; reinstatement with backpay; punitive damages; and attorney fees, expenses, and costs pursuant to 42 USC § 1988.

30 thoughts on “Former ISU Football Coach Sues After Being Allegedly Fired Over the Replacement of a BLM Poster on his Door”

  1. Agreed that free speech is key here, Turley. Ultimately, I see the disagreement in this particular case to be somewhat the fault of faculty for not being to make clear to each ‘side’ to realize that they were sharing the same message. The fact that it broke down into a religion vs. philosophy argument is something schools everywhere have to learn to navigate more effectively.

    From the standpoint of athletics, my time as both a player and a coach taught me the value of ‘reading the room’ and being in touch with momentum as those two realities are intimately tied to the success of the team writ large, and also in things like managing an offense or a defense. Not recognizing the sentiment of his players, and its importance during sketchy times in American history is definitely an area where Beathard fell off here. Granted, the man is and was going through a grief stricken time. A little understanding on both sides would be the best way forward here…

    But the reality is, college sports is a business and wins and losses are the report card. It’s a harsh venue all the way around. Coaches are at times easily fired. Players are at times easily run off of their scholarships. Best to navigate the rhetoric of everyday living in such a charged condition rather than get bogged down in it.

  2. Forcing the coach to keep a BLM poster on his own office door is compelled speech, anathema to the First Amendment.

    All lives matter to God is a kind and inclusive sentiment. People are free to agree, but no one has the right to force me to say anything different. If he was fired for posting a message that everyone matters to God, does that mean that the administrators think only some people matter to God?

    BLM has a well-documented history of supporting crime, opposing law enforcement, and being anti-Semitic. BLM has been the engine behind rioting, looting, arson, and defunding of police, which led to higher murder rates.

    Any organization that led to more murders is not a sacred cow, forbidden to criticize.

    Due to its activities, I associate BLM as anti-cop, which led to assaults and murders of police officers. This trend of trying to force people to pledge loyalty to BLM is fascist. I remember when BLM became so popular, that even non political social media groups were blasting BLM messaging. Anyone who complained was muted, scolded, and sometimes banned. Well, looking at the ruins of some cities, it appears the critics were right.

  3. “The Plan also promised ‘education’ for Lyons, all athletic administrators, and coaches on ‘diversity, equity, and anti-racism.’”

    In other words, they were sentenced to reeducation camp.

  4. Why is a Public Institution requiring Staff to endorse and promote a political movement?

    I would start cleaning house from the Top on that and re-instate there Coach with back pay, seniority, pension contributions, and guaranteed job for life along with a nice fat Bonus for having been done dirty.

    The junior Coach wanting to move up and having done what. he did….would be the new Tackling Dummy for the rest of his contract.

  5. Diversity, inequity, and exclusion (DIE) is Pro-Choice, selective, opportunistic, relativistic (“ethical”) religious dogma.

    Baby Lives Matter (BLM). #HateLovesAbortion

    1. Apparently, baby lives (especially black babies) don’t count as lives that matter because abortion clinics have most frequently been located in neighborhoods that Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) thought should have eradication manifested as a means to reduce that “undesirable element” of population.

  6. The impossibility of assimilation, the impossibility of mixing political oil and water is illicitly overcome by the introduction of unconstitutional political emulsifiers such as generational welfare, affirmative action, quotas, forced busing, non-discrimination laws, fair-housing laws, WIC, TANF, SNAP, HAMP, HARP, TARP, HUD, HHS, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam, oh, and by the false and illegitimate legitimization of BLM and Antifa.

    Understanding they have achieved the massive victory of the unconstitutional, communist, American welfare state, the parasitic dependents move on to obtain further unearned gains including the servility, deference, allegiance and fealty of craven, subservient, acquiescent actual Americans.

    My God, Man, stand up and defend yourself and your nation!
    ________________________________________________

    God ordered that the Israelites be determined and resolute.

    To wit,

    “…DESTROYED WITH THE SWORD EVERY LIVING THING IN IT – MEN AND WOMEN, YOUNG AND OLD, CATTLE, SHEEP AND DONKEYS.”

    Joshua 6 Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

    2 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”

    20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

    1. See also: Samuel, Saul, the bleeting sheep, and king Aga of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15).

      “Samuel said, ‘Which does the Lord prefer: obedience or offerings and sacrifices? It is better to obey him than to sacrifice the best sheep to him. Rebellion against him is as bad as witchcraft, and arrogance is as sinful as idolatry. Because you rejected the Lord’s command, he has rejected you as king.'” (v. 22-23)

  7. Terri Goss Kinzy is the President of Illinois State University. Kinzy leads a university in crisis. What sort of crisis? A crisis manifesting in what by all appearances are serious, politically-motivated violations of law, university policy, and ethical norms in the university’s athletic department. A crisis that could implicate the highest levels of the university leadership.

    Kinzy joined Illinois State in June, 2021. For that, Kinzy received a four-year contract with a $375,000 annual salary, plus a university-provided home, car, and country club membership. Kinzy replaced Larry Dietz, who retired in June. Dietz received the same $375,000 salary plus a $40,000 exit bonus. Not bad for Bloomington, Illinois, a town with a 2019 median per capita income of $38,188.

    By all reports, Kinzy is an impressive woman. She holds a doctorate in biochemistry. Her bio demonstrates a long history of leadership in collegiate science and technology research efforts. But the current crisis is the first test of her leadership in her new role as a university president.

    Leaders are measured by how they respond in a crisis. How will Kinzy respond? Will she waste precious university resources on lawyers defending what appears to be serious misconduct at the university she leads? Will she defend entrenched university insiders? That would be the easy way out: appropriate funds from the university budget to hire some high-end lawyers and quietly settle the suit once it is out of the public eye. Many of our so-called leaders would be happy to do just that. There’s something to be said for four years of tee times and meals at the country club, after all.

    Or Kinzy could address the crisis. The events alleged by the terminated employee raise important questions. How in the world did Dietz allow his subordinates to behave in the way they did? Did the crisis originate in the athletic department? Or, as the lawsuit implies, was the athletic department under pressure from outside forces? If so, what was the role of the university leadership in applying that pressure?

    A little digging (something that journalists used to do) provides a few answers. It turns out that then-president Dietz appointed Doris Houston as his assistant for diversity and inclusion effective July, 2020. Houston’s role? In the press release announcing her appointment, Dietz emphasized that Houston’s mandate was to “provide direction for university initiatives” and “collaborate with unit leaders across campus” to “advance the University’s values and accountability.” Collaborate, indeed. BLM posters showed up in the athletic department in August 2020. A long-standing and highly respected university employee, who has made a difference in the lives of a generation of students, stood firm against compelled political speech. He was cast aside that same month. Coincidence? It sure wouldn’t seem that way. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a biochemist, to appreciate the university’s emphasis on “direction” and “accountability.” Even politically unpopular athletic directors and head football coaches get the drill.

    This crisis at Illinois State is the latest in a string of similar incidents across our nation’s once-proud universities. Kinzy is in a tough spot. What will she do? Will she preside over the destruction of her university from within? The good news for Kinzy is that she assumed her leadership role after these shocking events occurred, so she doesn’t appear to be personally responsible for past events. But she has responsibility for the future direction of the university she leads. She has the power to right the ship. To foster a culture where all voices are heard. Where politically motivated retaliation is not tolerated.

    The unfortunate truth is that the crisis in our universities will continue until those responsible lose their jobs and are held personally responsible to their victims in damages. What were the roles of people like Dietz, Houston, and the athletic department leadership in this disturbing chain of events? This happened on their watch. Americans deserve answers. Their victims deserve accountability. And the survival of American universities is at stake.

  8. Targeting white businesses for boycott.

    I was laughed at 18 years ago when I called political correctness reverse Nazism. But they laughed at Galileo, too.

  9. No one should ever be intimidated or coerced into going along with an orthodoxy that they disagree with.

  10. Again, thank you to the good professor who informs us of issues totally ignored by (particularly) mainstream media. I would not have known of many of these cases were it not for this blog. America will not fall due to Russia, it will fall due to agenda-driven MEDIA. We all must fight the suppression of opposing or alternative opinions, issues, or stories, i.e., selective-fact reporting. And that includes Google algorithms, which selectively promote search results and bury other search results. Here’s a good example: Have you noticed the gross over-representation of Blacks/African Americans in virtually every TV commercial (especially NBC, ABC), even though Blacks are only 13% of the population, according to the latest Census? –Now try to “Google” a search such as “overrepresentation of Blacks on MSM” –or even “why are there so many Blacks in TV commercials?” and you will get left-wing results unrelated to your search. Try it. I dare you.

      1. If you look at the original Star Trek, they had an extremely diverse cast. Hell, Shatner had the first interracial kiss on TV. It was very forward thinking from a diversity standpoint. Everyone was treated with respect and crew members were valued for their talents in their field. In the imagined future, race or sex didn’t matter. It was how you did your job, how you related to others, and how you represented yourself and the rest of the crew.
        Now, if your TV show or commercial doesn’t have an interracial couple, a gay couple, a trans person, and maybe a token white person, you’re bigoted and racist. We’ve blown way past equality and headed deep into the realm of racism and sexism, towards whites and heterosexuals. At the same time, books like White Fragility tell their readers that it is impossible to be racist towards white people because white people still have “a place of power” over minorities.
        I miss the days when the original Star Trek was the goal for the future.

  11. One point confuses me. Who the #0&!@ is this person Lyons mentioned twice by JT but of no obvious relevance to the subject matter.

  12. Department of Athletics must publicly support Black Lives Matter.

    Acceptance is not enough for these radical ideologues. Very loud, public, full throated public advancement of the idiocy is demanded.

    (Insert Bob Hope joke here) Hope: “I see where California has legalized homosexual relations….I thing I’ll move…before they make it mandatory.”

  13. There’s a cottage industry out there waiting for some law firm taking on BLM/ANTIFA and the WOKE. Once the first large recovery is claimed, watch out.

  14. The only way to deal with these WOKE, BLM, AnTIFA, ANTI FREE SPEECH Social JuSTICE CROWD is hit them in the POCKET BOOK $$$$$

    Alumni do control the colleges if they want to. A surprisingly small number of Alum working together and withholding donations can get the attention of college Deans, who are evaluated by the ability to mine alums for cash.

    1. My comment is awaiting moderation because I guess I use language that has to be moderated. But it’s because I’m direct in black-and-white. But I digress I agree with everything you’re saying. Every word. The reason this has gotten as far as it has, is because the boomer generation have backed down and many have kissed BLM a-s.

      (Hopefully this will not be held up for moderating.) it absolutely disgusts me and my wife to see just how much my generation has backed down to younger loud mouth little insane punks. I don’t put up with it in my work and neither do other men or women in the Oil&Gas Industry. We get one of these guys fresh out of college and we have a way of breaking live pretty quick. Or they simply quit. The vast majority of them quit.

      But it has disgusted us to no end to see just how far this line of thinking has gotten. And it’s because far to many have turned into wimps and hide behind closed doors. Instead of having some guts about yourself and, standing in solidarity, together. And stand up as an unbelievably powerful force that will roll over this kind of thinking, quicker than Grant took Richmond.

  15. Well said. If anyone should be fired, it should be this guy: That person should remember that Karma can be a — well, you know

    25. Meanwhile, another coach who wanted to replace Beathard as offensive coordinator had taken a picture of Beathard’s poster and shared it with the football players. Apparently, the picture upset some of the football players.

  16. Illinois matters. Reverse the firing. Students should put up posters on their doors: Praise The Lord and Pass The Ammunition.

  17. The only way to deal with these WOKE, BLM, AnTIFA, ANTI FREE SPEECH Social JuSTICE CROWD is hit them in the POCKET BOOK $$$$$ and in the Courts and make sure its financially painful to them

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