Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oakland City Attorney Says A’s Sign Ban Is Illegal

By Robert Gammon
Wed, Apr 28, 2010 at 2:41 PM

Oakland City Attorney John Russo says the Oakland’s A’s decision to ban signs that criticize team co-owner Lew Wolff is unconstitutional, because it infringes on the free speech rights of fans. Russo made the statement in a letter to Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, warning him that police officers should not help A’s security eject fans that bring in hand-made signs critical of Wolff. Russo was referring to the A’s decision to eject A’s fan Jorge Leon from the coliseum for his signs — one of which read: “Lew Wolff hates Oakland.” The other stated “Lew Wolff lied, he never tried.”

In his letter to Batts, Russo explained that other professional sports teams and stadium owners have lost legal cases over similar bans, including the Cincinnati Reds and RFK Stadium in Washington DC. Courts have ruled that sports teams and stadium owners must have a compelling reason to infringe on fans’ free speech rights, and Russo told Batts that the A’s stated reason that they ban signs they believe are in “bad taste” will not pass legal muster:

“We believe the A’s do have a compelling interest in restricting signs that incite violence or imminent lawless action, make a true threat of harm, contain obscenity, or could otherwise cause harm to the public. In this case, criticizing team ownership did none of these things. The sign said, ‘Lew Wolff hates Oakland.’ Whether or not Mr. Wolff hates Oakland is not relevant. Either way, the A’s may not prohibit fans from speaking their minds about his ownership of the team.”

Russo also told Batts that Oakland police and the city could be held legally liable if they assist the A’s in enforcing their unconstitutional ban. OPD apparently helped A’s security eject Leon earlier this month.

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