Several college athletics programs have made headlines and drawn criticism lately for instituting bans on social media use for their student-athletes.
According to ESPN the Magazine, such bans could draw more than just criticism; they could draw lawsuits.
In some cases, the bans on social media use are said to be self-imposed; voted on by the players -- and supported by their coaches. In other cases, the coaches are explicitly forbidding their players from social media platforms, and that could be an unconstitutional violation of the players’ first amendment rights.
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Coaches that work at public universities, such as the men’s basketball coaches at Iowa, Louisville, Minnesota and Purdue, and Geno Auriemma of the UConn women’s basketball team -- all of whom banned their players from social media use during the last season -- are government employees, any bans on social media might make them liable for suppressing free speech. Season-long bans are possibly treading into even more dangerous territory, as those could fall under the overbreadth doctrine, which prevents the government from issuing gag orders.
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“It’s a pretty clear-cut case,” says Eric D. Bentley, associate general counsel at the University of Houston. “You can’t argue that because they’re student-athletes they have no First Amendment rights.”
Despite the shaky legal ground, colleges have not been forced to defend these bans in court in any significant case yet.
If they did, they might argue that student-athletes already submit to extra oversight in order to participate in their sport. The typical university student is not subject to practice schedules, curfews, or other team policies. But schedules and curfews don’t relate to freedom of speech.
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According to Frank LoMonte, executive director for the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, there is some precedent for employers limiting the speech of their workers by arguing that the workers’ speech can represent their organization. However, since universities don’t classify student-athletes as employees, they might be hesitant to use that defense.
“Colleges have made that bed, and now they’re going to have to lie in it,” LoMonte says.