ATHENS, Ga. (AP) _ A $2.57 million award to a University of Georgia instructor who claimed she was fired for protesting preferential treatment of athletes is a victory for free speech, colleagues say.

A U.S. District Court jury ruled Wednesday in favor of former English instructor Jan Kemp in her lawsuit against university developmental studies director Leroy Ervin and vice president for academic affairs Virginia Trotter.

Mrs. Kemp claimed in her suit that her constitutional right to free speech was violated when she was demoted from coordinator of a remedial program and fired in what she said was retaliation for her outspoken opposition to preferential treatment for athletes.

''Personally, I think it's overwhelming,'' Mrs. Kemp said, adding that the $2.57 million award exceeded her ''wildest dreams.''

The award included $79,680 in back pay, $200,000 in compensation for mental suffering, $1 for damage to Mrs. Kemp's reputation, $1.5 million in punitive damages against Ms. Trotter and $800,000 in punitive damages against Ervin.

U.S. District Judge Horace Ward gave attorneys 15 days to file a motion for reinstatement, which she had sought, and for legal fees.

The state has 30 days in which to appeal, and state Attorney General Michael Bowers said Wednesday in Atlanta that he would meet with Ervin and Ms. Trotter before deciding whether to do so.

University president Fred C. Davison said in a statement that any decisions stemming from the case will not be made until he receives a report from Bowers.

Ms. Trotter said she was ''certainly surprised'' by the verdict and award. Ervin said, ''I was just disappointed.''

According to testimony, the university's admission standards were lowered for revenue-producing athletes, some athletes were promoted from the remedial program even if they were not meeting grade requirements, some were offered individual instruction and some were given more than the usual time to get through the remedial program.

University officials maintained that special help was available to all remedial students and that Mrs. Kemp was fired because she clashed with colleagues and refused to do scholarly research.

''Dr. Kemp spoke out on academic matters and she prevailed in court,'' said Dr. Edward Davis, a mathematics professor and member of the university chapter of the American Association of University Professors. ''This encourages the faculty to speak out. I'm pleased, but I certainly did not expect it.''

The local AAUP chapter will ask the national organization for money to help Mrs. Kemp through any appeals, Davis said.

The verdict could affect personnel decisions at other schools, said Henry Bourne, vice president for academic affairs at Georgia Tech. ''It's not just the administrators. Faculty peer groups make decisions all the time about which faculty members should be retained and which should not.''

It is a sign that the emphasis on college athletics over academics is ''entirely out of hand,'' said Dr. William Friday, who is retiring as head of the North Carolina university system. ''I feel very deeply for the people who have been involved in this. What I see happening here is that the public has made of intercollegiate sports almost a religion and the demand for more and more, and win more and more, is unrelenting.''