Photo by Erik Dorst from Flickr Commons.

For many Clevelanders, Opening Day is a special holiday. They have survived another winter, so it’s time to celebrate.

And who could think of a better way to express your joy than by wearing racist symbols and yelling epithets at people trying to reclaim their history?

Well, I could think of a couple.

Every year on Opening Day, protesters from groups like the American Indian Movement and the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance  regularly come out to assert that their cultural and religious traditions deserve respect.  Then fans feel the need to respond with comments that I will not repeat here.

And all of this—protests, heckles from boozy onlookers, and offensive caricatures like “Chief Wahoo”—are protected speech.

So what’s a civil libertarian to do?

Free Speech Up to Bat

I think Noam Chomsky put it best when he said, “If we don’t believe in free speech for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

This sums up the sometimes uncomfortable history of the ACLU standing up for the right of unpopular (sometimes very unpopular) groups or individuals to espouse their beliefs.

This same principle came into the spotlight recently when the national ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of the Washington NFL team, arguing that the government should not deny trademarks to organizations they deem offensive. The U. S. Patent and Trademark Office often acts as the arbiter of popular morality, choosing which names and titles are offensive, and which are not.

Read the blog post, “You’re Not Wrong, You're Just an A**hole” explaining why the ACLU argued that government cannot deny the Washington NFL team their trademark.  

The fact that they’ve allowed Washington’s and Cleveland’s team names to exist for so long shows what a bad job they do at this. When it comes down to it, the government shouldn’t be the ones to decide what qualifies as acceptable speech.

It’s Going, Going, but not Gone

The best way to deal with speech we don’t like is, in fact, more speech. Thankfully, activism by the native community has gathered momentum over the years. The Cleveland baseball team has been quietly phasing out the “chief” from their uniforms, substituting the block “C” as their primary logo.

The answer here lies in continued pressure on the organization to drop their derogatory imagery and embrace the fact that it’s not a logo or a mascot that fills the seats.
They don’t make a cold beer taste better on a sunny afternoon, or make the roar of the crowd more exciting when a long fly ball floats over the left field wall. Those are the real reasons people pack into downtown during baseball season.

So just as Cleveland fans hold onto the belief that this finally will be their winning year, we will cross our fingers and wear our lucky “C” hats in hopes the team will do what’s right.