Chris Malone, a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football assistant coach who resigned on Jan. 7 in the wake of backlash surrounding his negative tweet about Georgia politician Stacey Abrams, is suing the university.
The Jan. 5 post, which in part accused Abrams, a voting rights advocate who is Black, of cheating in the state of Georgia's 2020 runoff elections for the U.S. Senate, referred to "Fat Albert" and told her to "enjoy the buffet Big Girl" was on Twitter for 30 minutes before being deleted by Malone after three former UTC football players responded negatively.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, named three defendants against Malone, who was the Mocs' offensive line coach: UTC president Steve Angle, vice chancellor and athletic director Mark Wharton and head football coach Rusty Wright. It alleges Malone's tweet is protected by the First Amendment and that he was forced to resign because of the post.
UTC offered no comment, citing university policy not to discuss pending legal matters.
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"UTC is going to get acquainted with the First Amendment," Doug Churdar, Malone's attorney, said in a news release that included a copy of the lawsuit. "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."
According to the release, Malone is seeking nominal damages, compensatory damages, reinstatement with backpay, punitive damages, declaratory relief and attorney fees, expenses and costs pursuant to the case on the basis that he was a private citizen expressing thoughts from his personal account, which did not identify him as "an employee of — much less a spokesman for — UTC."
Angle, Wharton and Wright will next be served their lawsuits, which will precede the discovery phase in which Malone and the defendants' depositions will be taken. After a process that could take anywhere from six to eight months, there will either be a settlement or a trial, said Churdar, who told the Times Free Press in an interview Wednesday evening that he believes "everything Malone is asking for in the lawsuit will ultimately be awarded in his favor."
Malone spent approximately 20 years in college coaching, with two separate stints at UTC plus stops at Massachusetts, Virginia Military Institute, James Madison, Old Dominion and Virginia State, a historically black college and university.
"I've coached more than 20 years, including at an HBCU school," Malone said in the release. "I'm a good coach and get along with everyone. I criticize the wrong politician and suddenly I'm racist? That's completely false and a very tired cliché, I might add."
Churdar, a South Carolina-based attorney, declined to provide contact information for Malone.
In the documents, Malone stated that on the night of Jan. 5, he was watching the returns of the Georgia Senate runoff races between two Democrats and two Republicans, which drew national attention. The two Democrats — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — were supported by Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018. Once it became apparent that Ossoff and Warnock were about to win their runoffs, an upset Malone fired off the since-deleted tweet.
"Someone screenshot the tweet," the document alleges. "Apparently, this person is humorless, hypersensitive and vindictive. This person was also emboldened by the "search and destroy" atmosphere that currently prevails in our culture, and he believed that Malone should lose a 20-year career because of a tweet that was up for 30 minutes. The screenshot was subsequently published and used to pressure the defendants to terminate Malone's employment."
Malone alleges he went to work like normal on Jan. 6 and was never told that his tweet was "unacceptable" or that he had violated any "clear set of standards," words used by Wright in a tweet announcing Malone's termination. He also alleges he saw Wharton that day as well, but the tweet was never mentioned and the athletic director never said Malone had posted something "totally inappropriate" or "appalling," words mentioned by Wharton in the same tweet. According to the documents, he did receive a call from Wright that afternoon indicating he thought the tweet was funny.
There were three other calls from Wright over the next 24 hours, according to the documents:
— The first, around 7:30, had Wright telling Malone he didn't know what was going to happen to Malone's job and that "this" had gone over his head;
— The second, around midnight, had Wright stating he was trying to get Malone suspended with pay, but "wasn't sure that would happen";
— The final one, around 7 a.m. on Jan. 7, was Wright telling Malone he would "be fired if he didn't resign immediately," according to the documents. Malone emailed the resignation.
"Chris is a great guy, and he's just been demonized as a result of a sophomoric joke about this lady," Churdar told the Times Free Press. "That's one thing. The other thing is, people really don't understand the First Amendment. Everybody says, 'I support free speech,' but really they support it until somebody says something they don't like and then they don't support it, so that's what's happened; that's what's happened here, and it's why we brought the lawsuit.
"Chris Malone made a joke that a lot of people would laugh about if it was somebody they didn't like."
Added Churdar from the release: "It's search and destroy out there. There's no way a man should lose a 20-year career over a tweet that was up for 30 minutes.
"Most victims of cancel culture just walk away. Chris Malone won't walk away."