UTICA, Ohio (WCMH) – On the same week that the United States Supreme Court paved the way for high school coaches to pray on the field, finding it is free speech, a Licking County school district agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a free-speech lawsuit filed by one of its students.
The student was kicked off the Utica High School football team for something he did to the American flag.
“I mean, he had to spend the last year and a half of his high school career suing his own high school,” said Jeff Vardaro, attorney for former student Seth Cooper.
It all started near the end of one of the first football games of Cooper’s junior year. The Utica High team did away with communal towels because of COVID-19, and Cooper’s helmet visor was fogging up.
“I couldn’t see, right,” Cooper said. “So I go to the sideline, I can’t find anything. I go to the medical tent. The flag is right next to the tent. I just grabbed it, wiped my visor, and go back out on the field.”
Using the American flag to clean his visor outraged a cheerleader, who posted about it online that night, igniting a firestorm of criticism that had North Fork School Board members exchanging angry emails.
Cooper said the action was not a political statement.
“It was just the only thing I had at the time,” he said.
But, at the first game of that season, Cooper had taken a knee during the National Anthem as a political protest of something that happened the year before.
“A kid on Utica’s team called a bunch of players on the Heath team the n-word,” Cooper said.
Cooper was the only person of color on the Utica team. He said a number of white teammates yelled racial slurs at Black players on opposing teams with little consequence.
But the day after using the flag to wipe his helmet, Cooper was permanently kicked off the team.
“The magnitude of the punishment was clearly outrageous, especially considering there had been white players the year before who used the n-word toward Black players on the other team,” Vardaro said. “They didn’t get the kind of suspension that Seth faced.
“A school district, a public entity, is not allowed to take disciplinary action against a student for not being patriotic enough,” Vardaro added.
The attorney for North Fork Local Schools said the district properly followed the policies and procedures, and even though they agreed to pay Cooper $150,000, “the district feels strongly about their position in this case,” according to the attorney.
Vardaro said the district’s position, in the name of the American flag, violates the American Constitution.
“There’s two important Constitutional principles combined in this case,” he said. “One is freedom of expression. School districts are not allowed to enforce a particular view of patriotism, and second, equal protection. You can’t punish Black students differently than you do white students.”
The district does not admit any fault in the case, its attorney said.
Several attempts to get a comment from the district, the superintendent, and the president of the school board were unreturned.