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High court turns away appeal by Chief Wahoo protesters

By The Associated Press
05.17.05

CLEVELAND — The U.S. Supreme Court refused yesterday to hear an appeal from five people arrested for burning an effigy of a Cleveland Indians logo that they view as racist.

The protesters had challenged a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that authorities did not violate the free-speech rights of the five when they were arrested on Opening Day 1998 for torching a 3-foot effigy of Chief Wahoo outside the Indians' stadium.

The protesters said the demonstration was legitimate free speech, and compared it to constitutionally protected flag-burning. The Ohio court ruled in December that the arrests were justified because the fire threatened the public's safety, even though the burning of the effigy by itself was constitutionally protected free speech.

U.S. Supreme Court justices refused the case, Bellecourt v. Cleveland, 04-1248, without comment.

"This decision confirms that the First Amendment is not without limitations. We embrace the protesters right to self expression, but not at the expense of public safety," said Thomas J. Kaiser, the city's chief lawyer on the case.

He said the burning was reckless, with heavy use of an accelerant in windy conditions and no containers for the debris.

During the court case, Cleveland submitted a videotape of a protester pouring more lighter fluid on the burning effigy, a stuffed doll representing the Indians mascot.

Protester Vernon Bellecourt, one of those arrested, said yesterday that several police and fire officials were present to keep people safe, including putting barricades around the burning.

"There was no threat to the public safety whatsoever," Bellecourt said. "The fact is, there was no threat to anyone."

Bellecourt said he was disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear the appeal but that he would continue to try to get the team to drop the logo — a cartoonish red face with a big smile and red feather on its head. American Indians say the feather belittles the Indian symbol of a heroic warrior.

"It seems like the Supreme Court is sliding back into history instead of going forward into the new millennium," Bellecourt said.

The team has rarely commented on the mascot controversy and declined to comment on yesterday's action. The Cleveland artist who designed the logo for the Indians in 1946 said he never meant for it to be offensive.

Bellecourt, a leader in the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis and president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, said the protesters might sue the city over the arrests.

He said he feared the decision sent a bad message.

"This is setting a very dangerous precedent in that any municipality or law enforcement agency could argue public safety" when arresting protesters, Bellecourt said.

Freedom of speech does not mean protesters get a free pass, Kaiser said.

"Freedom of speech should not come at the risk of burn injuries," he said.


Previous
Court: Torching Chief Wahoo effigy was hazard, not free speech
Ohio high court votes 5-2 to uphold Cleveland's decision to arrest protesters who burned Indians' mascot outside baseball stadium. 12.16.04

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