In Football Controversy, ACLU of MN Sues School District on Behalf of 10-Year-Old Packers Fan

Affiliate: ACLU of Minnesota
December 15, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU of Minnesota
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MINNEAPOLIS, MN–The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit against the New Prague School District on behalf of Roy Sonkowsky and his son Rocky, who was excluded by school officials from participating in school activities because of his allegiance to the Green Bay Packers football team.

“This case is about a young boy who did not want to conform to the school’s mandate that he be a Vikings fan,” said Chuck Samuelson, MCLU’s Executive Director. “He was subjected to punishment, teasing and humiliation merely for expressing his affinity for the Green Bay Packers. Schools cannot punish non-disruptive speech simply because they disagree with it.”

The schools’ disciplinary policies only prohibit “student attire or personal grooming which creates a danger to health or safety or creates a disruption to the educational process,” according to the ACLU complaint.

“Rocky’s Packer attire clearly does not fall within the type of prohibited clothing set forth by the school,” Samuelson said. “There was also no legitimate educational reason for the student to be subjected to the treatment he received.”

In addition to being excluded from a pizza party, Rocky was told to cover up his Packer jersey for a group photo and was prohibited from joining his class in the town’s holiday parade because he did not wish to wear the Viking colors of purple and gold.

In the complaint, the ACLU argues that the school’s actions violated the student’s right to free speech and seeks compensatory and punitive damages, costs and attorneys fees.

During the Fall 1999 term at New Prague Intermediate School, teachers Richard Wilson and Kristina Madigan entered their fourth grade classes in a state wide geography contest.

The contest, presented as a partnership with the Minnesota Vikings, was sponsored by numerous corporations, including the Minneapolis Star – Tribune, Target and Best Buy. Participation in the contest was a requirement for Madigan and Wilson’s students.

The grand prize included a trip to Winter Park, and lunch with Minnesota Vikings’ Wide Receiver, Cris Carter, the designated Vikings representative for the contest.

As part of their assignments, Madigan and Wilson’s student were required to color a picture of a football player. Rocky colored his picture green and yellow, the colors of the Green Bay Packers. All of the students’ pictures, with the exception of Rocky’s, were placed on a classroom bulletin board. Wilson told Rocky that his picture was not displayed because he colored a Green Bay player, not a Viking.

Madigan’s and Wilson’s classes together won the geography contest. As winners, they were directed to pose for a class picture to be used for promotional materials.

Rocky wore a Green Bay Packer jersey at the photo shoot. Wilson told Rocky that if he did not remove or conceal his Packer jersey, he could not appear in the photo. Rocky reluctantly complied.

When the child’s father learned of the incident, he advised his son to refuse to cover or change his jersey in the future and if there were any questions, told his son to have the school could call him to discuss the matter.

In early December 1999, Madigan and Wilson’s classes were invited to participate in the New Prague Holiday Parade as the City’s way of recognizing the accomplishment of the fourth grade classes. The week of the parade, Wilson informed Rocky that if he showed to the parade wearing a Green Bay jersey or jacket, he would not be allowed to participate.

Sonkowsky called Wilson and asked if it was true that his son would be excluded from the parade if he wore a Packer shirt or jacket. Wilson confirmed and the father advised Wilson that his son would therefore not be participating in the parade.

The day before the party at Winter Park, Wilson approached Rocky and told him that he could not say anything to Cris Carter about the Vikings that might bother him. Rocky asked if he could wear his Packer jersey to Winter Park. Wilson responded by telling him that he would not be allowed to go to Winter Park at all because he’s such a big Packer fan and would instead have to stay at school and complete an assignment due the following day.

When Sonkowsky spoke with Wilson about his decision to leave Rocky behind, Wilson referred to the “disrespect” that the boy displayed on the day the photo was taken and said he feared he would say or do something that would embarrass the school, the district or Cris Carter and the Vikings.

Sonkowsky then spoke with the school principal about the matter. Principal Anderson explained that she and Wilson had discussed the matter and decided that the boy should not go on the trip. Anderson also expressed that they feared that Rocky would say or do something that would embarrass Cris Carter and might cause the school to not be allowed to participate in future promotions put on by the Vikings. Anderson said that even mentioning to Cris Carter that he is a Packer fan might upset Cris Carter or the Vikings.

“I don’t believe that Cris Carter or the Vikings would be offended by the fact that my son is a Packer fan,” said Sonkowsky. “The Vikings are accustomed to being in situations where fans express their affinity for other teams.”

But Anderson refused to change her mind, forcing Mr. Sonkowsky to keep his son home rather than sending him to school to face the humiliation of being kept from the trip.

After being singled out and excluded by school officials, Rocky continued to be teased throughout the rest of the 1999-2000 school year by students in his class about the fact that he is a Packer fan.

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