Former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football assistant coach Chris Malone isn't the first person to file a lawsuit over a social media post that led to an employment separation, and he won't be the last.
In fact, many more may be coming if courts uphold First Amendment rights over work dismissals from government-related institutions as a result of an individual saying, writing or tweeting statements that may be offensive.
In Malone's case, he resigned after backlash to a tweet he wrote about Georgia politician Stacey Abrams, who is credited by some for helping engineer the double win by then-senatorial candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in a Jan. 5 runoff election.
We did not, cannot and would not defend the former coach's choice of unflattering words to describe the former Georgia state senator and failed gubernatorial candidate.
Stacey, on her own, has political baggage that could have been cited and is likely be resurrected if she chooses to run for another office. That includes her ongoing claim without evidence — not unlike former President Donald Trump — that she won the 2018 Georgia governor's race.
Then, for Malone to post a tweet as he did, in the middle of a pandemic-driven cancel culture — where people have lost their positions for things they wrote, said or tweeted in recent years, on a college essay or when they were 12 years old — shows a certain tone deafness.
And for the coach to express himself on Twitter, which, even if a tweet was quickly deleted, may have been retweeted, screenshot and sent to influential officials, shows a lack of respect for the power of social media.
Malone resigned two days after his tweet. The university's external media response on the day he left did not say he was fired or resigned and did not cite a specific UTC handbook or contract violation. It said only that "UTC faculty and staff are expected to lead in a way that achieves and maintains a respectful, tolerant and civil campus environment."
Asked Thursday to qualify what violations led to the coach's resignation, Dr. Jay Blackman, UTC deputy athletics director for internal operations, said because "this is pending litigation, I cannot comment any further."
Malone's South Carolina-based attorney had plenty to say, though.
"UTC is going to get acquainted with the First Amendment," Doug Churdar said in a news release. "As a public school, it cannot control what its employees say at social gatherings or on social media. It certainly cannot fire them for criticizing and mocking politicians."
The release noted Malone made his comments from his personal Twitter account that did not identify him as an "employee of — much less a spokesman for — UTC."
The suit asks for nominal damages, compensatory damages, reinstatement with back pay, punitive damages, declaratory relief, and attorney's fees, expenses and costs pursuant to the case.
Churdar told the newspaper Wednesday night he believes "everything Malone is asking for will ultimately be awarded in his favor."
Bold words when a lawsuit is filed are one thing. Making them stand up is another.
But Dr. Nick Anspach, a professor of political science at York College in York, Pennsylvania, seemed to bear out what Churdar was saying in speaking on cancel culture and the First Amendment to York's Fox43 in February.
"The first amendment covers government," he said. "Government can't come after you for what you say, so you can say all kinds of crazy things. The government is not going to prosecute you for it."
UTC, of course, is a part of the public University of Tennessee system.
In February in Memphis, the principal of a public high school filed suit after being placed on administrative leave after speaking to students and staff in a weekly "principal's message" video on free speech and the dangers of the cancel culture.
In his lawsuit, Barton Thorne, principal of Cordova High School, said Shelby County Schools violated the First and 14th amendments, inflicted intentional and negligent emotional stress, caused significant damage to his reputation and was in breach of his employment contract. He is asking for unspecified damages.
The principal received word an hour after the lawsuit was filed that he was being reinstated, but his attorney said the lawsuit would go on.
What will happen in Malone's case is likely to take many months to sort out. Though he chose in a moment of anger to post a foolish tweet, whether that should end — or at least damage — a 20-year professional career will be for the courts to decide.
In a Pacific Legal Foundation forum in January, Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Businesses, said surveys have shown people on the right and left hate cancel culture, political correctness and wokeness.
And the courts?
"[W]hat is clear," wrote David L. Hudson, for The Free Speech Center, "is that public employers should not engage in knee-jerk reactions any time a public employee posts something they don't like on social media."
But, say many law scholars, such cases often ride on the court weighing an employee's right to free speech against the employer's interests in an efficient, disruption-free workplace.
And this may be one of those cases.