Ohio Library Can't Ban Workers From Wearing Cleveland Indians Logo, ACLU Says

April 22, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, April 22, 1999

CLEVELAND, OH — The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today declared its opposition to a policy prohibiting Cuyahoga County Library employees from wearing Cleveland Indians apparel bearing the image of Chief Wahoo.

County Library Executive Director John Lonsak, who announced the ban last week, said that library employees are now forbidden to wear the Wahoo image on casual days, when the library dress code is relaxed.

Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director for the ACLU of Ohio, said that the ban violates the First Amendment rights of library workers, who as public employees have a limited but definite right to free expression in the workplace.

“The question is one of limits,” said Vasvari. “A government agency may impose a dress code and may even prohibit a wide range of fashions. But when the government employer allows certain sports attire and bans other sports attire based on the symbols involved and the possibility of offense, the employees have been denied their rights under the First Amendment.”

Traditionally, courts have been skeptical of restrictions which allow some speech and prohibit other speech based on the content of the message involved. This sort of distinction creates a government preference for one message over another, in violation of the First Amendment.

“The issue is not racism: this is a case about free speech,” Vasvari said. “Whatever you think of the use of Chief Wahoo as a mascot, no one has the right to tell public employees which logos are acceptable and which are offensive.”

“However well intentioned the policy,” he added, “that is a line which, under our Constitution, the government may not draw.”

The ACLU of Ohio said that it will investigate the policy and welcomes the opportunity to speak with library employees who feel their rights have been violated.

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