RICHMOND, Va. - Two students at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia are suing their universities, respectively, for allegedly retaliating against them for exercising their First Amendment rights.
At James River High School, Kiersten Hening was a standout soccer player. The Midlothian native went on to shine at Virginia Tech, where she walked onto the women's soccer team in 2018 and started 37 matches in her first two seasons at the school.
But, according to a federal lawsuit filed on March 3, Hening said this past season she was benched for several games, and eventually forced off the team for refusing to kneel before games.
Hening filed the lawsuit against her former coach, Chugger Adair, claiming he engaged in a campaign of abuse and retaliation that caused her to leave the program.
Hening said the retaliation started after the team's opening match of the 2020 season against the University of Virginia.
While her teammates knelt during the pregame reading of the Atlantic Coach Conference's Unity pledge, Hening and another student remained standing.
In the wake of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, several professional and student athletes have "taken a knee" during the national anthem before games in a show of support.
Hening's lawsuit claims she supports social justice and believes that black lives matter, but doesn't support the BLM organization.
The case is the second federal lawsuit involving free speech at a public university in the Western District of Virginia.
At the University of Virginia, a former medical student claims he was suspended and then expelled from the university for challenging a faculty member during a panel discussion on microaggressions.
In the lawsuit filed in September of 2019, student Kieran Bhattacharya said he was told to seek counseling and was eventually expelled for not upholding "professional standards."
In written court statements, university faculty deemed Bhattacharya's speech and subsequent actions, "antagonistic" and "disrespectful."
A judge has dismissed several claims filed by Bhattacharya against the university but is allowing the first amendment claim to proceed.
Both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, along with attorneys for both plaintiffs, have declined to comment pending litigation.
While private universities and companies have more power in determining consequences for speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has famously said "students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."
Students have been afforded certain protections by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Dr. Lauren Bell, a professor of Political Science and Dean of Academic Affairs at Randolph-Macon College, said state colleges and universities cannot restrict free speech unless it has some reasonable expectation that the expression disrupts school activities, is considered dangerous, lewd, or vulgar or threatens the rights of others.
"The government really cannot regulate speech, even if it's unpopular, even if it makes people uncomfortable," Bell stated. "In both cases, the students have pretty genuine complaints that a public entity, essentially an offshoot of the government, is imposing limits on their speech."
Bell said the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear a case this week involving a student's right to free speech on social media. Bell added social media cases are a hot button issue, and the court case could set a precedent for future cases.
"These cases are not uncommon, but I think as we've heard more and more public figures speaking out about cancel culture or arguing that they're being canceled or they've had harm come to them as a result of something that was said, I think it's heightened people's awareness," Bell said.