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Suit Targets Schools' Ban on Indian Mascots

Education: Booster from Birmingham High in Van Nuys argues that policy suppresses free speech.

January 08, 1998|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A booster at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys sued the Los Angeles Unified School District on Wednesday in an effort to reverse a recent ban on American Indian mascots, arguing that the district policy muzzles free speech.

Jim Pitillo, a 1964 graduate of Birmingham and ardent fan of its teams, long known as the Braves, contends in his suit that the district's policy "is unconstitutionally overbroad in that 'Brave' or 'Braves' and 'Warrior' or 'Warriors' are not names of American Indians."

The suit contends that the policy so effectively limits protected speech, it infringes on "the singing of the 'Star Spangled Banner' "--a reference to its famous phrase, "Home of the Brave"--and would limit the use of such books as "The Last of the Mohicans."

Pitillo and his attorney, another Birmingham booster, were arrested on suspicion of trespassing at the campus in September--less than three weeks after the policy was enacted--when they refused to leave a concession stand where they were selling T-shirts that read "Save the Braves, 44 Years of Pride," school district police said.

The mascot they want to save depicts an American Indian with a headdress, an image based on a respected Native American chief who lived more than two centuries ago.

"In my heart, I cannot see how anyone can find this positive image offensive," Pitillo told a news conference Wednesday shortly before filing the lawsuit in Van Nuys Superior Court. "I'm not advocating denigrating any race of people."

Pitillo's lawsuit seeks to cast the names of mascots in a positive light, arguing, for example, that the term "Braves" was used as "a symbol of the strength of our forefathers."

"I believe that most words and images are not inherently disrespectful," said attorney Frank Arrigo, another Class of '64 alumnus who was arrested with Pitillo in September. "To say that all American Indian images have to be banned is ridiculous."

District officials said they had not seen the lawsuit, which asks the court to invalidate the ban and names as defendants the seven members of the Board of Education, Supt. Ruben Zacarias, Birmingham High Principal Gerald Kleinman and Deborah Leidner, the district's area administrator in Van Nuys.

But district officials questioned the merits of Pitillo's claims. They said the policy does not deprive anyone of free speech or other constitutional guarantees. The policy, they said, was crafted specifically to prevent the spread of negative stereotypes about Native Americans.

"You don't have a 1st Amendment right to have a particular mascot at your school if the governing authority has [adopted] a policy to the contrary," said Rich Mason, the district's general counsel. "They are attempting to achieve in the courts what they could not achieve in the political arena, and I don't believe they are going to succeed."

The Board of Education enacted the mascot policy Sept. 8, bringing to a close years of campaigning by Native American groups that argued that the Braves mascot and others demeaned their culture. The board's resolution gave schools until June 1998 to change their mascots and remove Native American images from gym floors, sports equipment and elsewhere.

The policy also affects University High (Warriors), Gardena High (Mohicans) and Wilmington Middle School (Warriors). So far, only Birmingham supporters have filed a lawsuit.

Native American activists, speaking at Wednesday's news conference, said the use of Indian mascots perpetuates stereotypes of their people as violent savages.

"No other ethnic group is treated in this way," said Eugene Herrod, a member of Advocates for American Indian Children. "You wouldn't have the 'Birmingham Blacks' or the 'Birmingham Jews.' It's hard to explain to a young child why we are singled out for a mascot."

Francisco Carrillo of the Native American Indian Movement echoed the sentiments.

"We are here to tell everybody that we are not mascots, we are human beings," he said. "Indian people are not a thing of the past, not something to be used, to be made fun of. We have rights too."

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