By Steven Cook, Alison Schnake and Parker Farnham
Two federal judges ruled in favor of mask use at the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Knoxville, Tennessee, according to court documents filed on Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Harold H. Greene in Knoxville ruled against the state in a lawsuit brought by the NCAA and Tennessee football fans last year. The case drew national attention because it became the first federal court to overturn a state ban on mask usage at sporting events.
In a 5-4 decision last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reinstated the 2006 Tennessee law barring any “mask covering with or under the face” while games were in progress, citing a broader First Amendment right to free expression. That decision overruled a 2016 ruling by a federal judge in Knoxville, who also ruled against the state’s ban on masks.
At the time of the March 5 ruling last year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said his office would “review all legal options for appeal” of the appellate decision. As of Monday, there were no indications of any such efforts by the governor’s office.
Haslam, a Republican who plans to leave office this year, moved to ban the use of facial coverings while events were in progress in the wake of a violent fan brawl during Tennessee’s football game against Maryland on Nov. 18, 2017. Tennessee player Kyle Alexander was stabbed and paralyzed.
While at least one federal court has upheld that 2009 law, several states and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have separately challenged its constitutionality, leading to numerous appeals courts deciding whether the law should be preserved.
The NCAA’s first attempt to curb mask use, in 2012, failed as the federal courts took two years to issue their decisions. A similar case before a Colorado federal judge argued that the use of such facial veils in intimate settings could have a sexual impact on those watching, placing women at particular risk. But that case was also overturned by an appeals court.
In the February 11 unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals returned the case to the Knoxville federal judge to determine whether the law violated the free speech rights of prospective and current students, previous students, and any future students.
Both the NCAA and a former student attending the University of Tennessee, Andrew Krivanek, joined the lawsuit against the law brought last year. Krivanek said he used a face mask as a walk-on for the Volunteers’ soccer team, and that his face was bruised and nearly ruined by a celebratory punch that happened “about eight seconds” after Tennessee upset the University of Alabama.