Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Banning Boo Birds
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is considering a rule that would ban booing, negative comments, and offensive chants at high school sporting events.
I previously have written on whether any type of fan "cheering speech" can be regulated or prohibited at college and professional sporting events. My conclusions in those contexts has been (not surprisingly to those who have been reading me the past few months) that such prohibitions violate the freedom of speech. They also are practically unenforceable, at least in a fair, neutral, and even-handed way. And they are a really stupid idea.
As to banning booing and negative comments: This would run afoul of the First Amendment's basic prohibition on rules that discriminate based on "viewpoint"--rules that permit speech on a topic from one point of view while prohibiting speech on the same topic from a different point of view. Allowing me to cheer for and praise Player X on Team A, but prohibiting me from booing or criticizing Player X on Team A obviously discriminates against one point of view--the negative or critical one. Government cannot require people to "keep things positive."
As to offensive chants: This breaks down on the problem of "offensive to whom?" Is the level of acceptable cheering whatever is acceptable to the most sensitive/least tolerant person in the audience? Acceptable to the school administrator? To the usher?
Plus, much offensive speech is subtle enough that those in charge do not actually recognize that it might be offensive. My favorite example (which I always run back to in all my articles) is what happened when Texas Tech played at Kansas in men's basketball in 2004, a game played a few days after Tech Coach Bob Knight's infamous altercation with the university chancellor at a salad bar in Lubbock. During the game, Kansas fans chanted "salad tosser" at Knight and most listeners (including KU Coach Bill Self and university administrators) praised the students for their cleverness. But go look-up the term salad-tosser as a piece of slang. Think the students knew this when they picked out that phrase?
The point is that prohibiting "offensive speech" is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. It is over-inclusive because officials tend to get overly sensitive and thus to over-regulate. It is under-inclusive because more subtle (but not less offensive) examples will be missed.
All that said, the fact that this is occurring at the high school level potentially (likely?) changes the analysis. High schools are able to regulate student expression (certainly in school-sponsored and school-funded activities, if not beyond) in ways that would be unacceptable and impermissible on a college campus or in society at large. This includes prohibiting particular points of view on some subjects from being presented within the school confines.
That is why it is important to consider, First Amendment rules to one side, the stupidity of such policies. Whether or not Washington officials could do this gives way to whether Washington should do this. My answer is they should not.