Football and free speech

FOOTBALL AND FREE SPEECH….For years, disgruntled football fans have taken some pleasure in mocking their team when it’s losing. Fans have worn paper bags over their heads, held up signs calling for a new coach, and generally shouted rude things at anyone on the field who’d listen.

But in Buffalo, where the Bills are nearly finished with their disappointing 5-and-10 season, there’s a new free-speech debate underway. The methods of protest that fans have been enjoying for years are suddenly off-limits.

Among the many disgruntled Buffalo Bills season-ticket holders, Mike Allenbaugh looked forward to having the chance to voice his frustrations at the team’s final home game by holding up a sign of protest.

After checking the team’s stadium policy, Allenbaugh came up with a sign that read: “firE coacheS dumP maNagement” — the capital letters aligned to spell out ESPN, the national cable-TV network which broadcast the Dec. 17 game in which Denver defeated Buffalo 28-17.

Allenbaugh, however, never had a chance to hold up his sign. Ralph Wilson Stadium security officials confiscated it shortly before kickoff after first threatening to have him ejected.

Allenbaugh told reporters, “I can go in there and say, ‘Go Bills.’ I can go in there and say, ‘Go Patriots.’ Why can’t I say, ‘I don’t like you as a manager’?” It’s hardly an unreasonable question.

Apparently, this wasn’t an isolated incident. The Bills organization has a policy that encourages security to confiscate negative signs, T-shirts, and, yes, even paper bags. In a more amusing example, before a game against Atlanta, the Bills barred fans wearing “Ron Mexico” jerseys from even entering the stadium after Michael Vick allegedly used the name as an alias after being sued by a woman who accused him of infecting her with herpes.

In other words, in Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium, which is a public facility that has enjoyed public financing, fans are finding that they’re checking some of their First Amendment rights at the gate. Signs are acceptable, unless the team finds them “negative.” T-shirts and jerseys are fine, as long as they’re supporting the Bills and/or the league’s public-relations strategy. It’s reminiscent of the Bush White House’s Bubble-Boy policies in which people are welcome at presidential events, as long as they agree to be on-message.

Could this be an untapped market for free-speech litigation?