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Native American group plans to file a $9 billion lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians over Chief Wahoo

Jun 25, 2014, 4:11 PM EDT

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I think my record on the Chief Wahoo thing is pretty clear by now. I’m quite obviously not a fan. But there’s a big, big difference between thinking something is offensive and should be banished to history and thinking that thing actually entitles people to billions of dollars in legal damages. Some folks to whom I’d otherwise be sympathetic are going to learn that pretty quickly.

From Paul Kiska at ABC5 in Cleveland, brought to our attention by Big League Stew:

Robert Roche is the director of the American Indian Education Center and one of the plaintiffs planing to file a federal lawsuit in late July against the Cleveland Indians. The group says the team’s name and the Chief Wahoo logo are racist. The group wants a lot of money to help Native Americans with education, job training and housing.

“We’re going to be asking for $9 billion and we’re basing it on a hundred years of disparity, racism, exploitation and profiteering,” Roche said.

Normally it’s folks who support things like Chief Wahoo or the Redskins name who fail to grasp what does and what does not violate one’s rights. One need only search “Redskins” and “freedom of speech” to get a taste of that sort of baloney. Here, however, Roche and the American Indian Education Center are the ones who are missing the point of how things work in this country.

The Cleveland Indians are a private corporation. They, like any other private citizen, can be as offensive as they want to be. They can do more than put a Wahoo patch on their caps and jerseys, in fact! They could have a “We really, really hate Native Americans Day” at Progressive Field and hand out racist literature stamped with “The Cleveland Indians heartily endorse this message because, oh my god, we really hate racial minorities.” Now, I know some people who work for the Indians and know they wouldn’t choose to do that, but legally speaking, they totally could. That sort of freedom — and the corresponding freedom of baseball fans all over to boycott/ostracize them into the Stone Age if they did — is one of the beauties of America.

But do you know who could sue the Indians if they did that? No one. Well, some employees could based on a hostile work environment theory. And Major League Baseball could do whatever it wanted to up to and including any litigation it might choose that is consistent with the team’s and the league’s franchise agreement. But ordinary citizens couldn’t. They don’t have any more right to sue the Indians over Chief Wahoo than they’d have to sue the organizers of a Klan march on the statehouse, a jackwagon yelling things at people on a street corner or your racist uncle who had too many beers last Memorial Day and decided to tell you what he really thinks of that ethnic minority family who moved in down the street. Maybe those folks have some unpopular views, but our legal system protects their rights for good reason.

Of course Robert Roche and the American Indian Education Center likely know this. And I presume they are merely seeking out some headlines in order to draw attention to their cause. But ultimately this sort of stunt is counterproductive as a means of swaying public opinion. A lot of people hate Chief Wahoo and a lot of people love him. But a lot MORE people hate lawyers and litigiousness and are immediately suspect of someone who files — or, in this case, threatens to file — lawsuits against their beloved institutions. Especially ones with little if any legal merit.

Put differently: you’re not helping, dudes. Keep up the protests and the public pressure. Even think about narrow, focused legal action with actual merit such as the trademark challenge the Redskins just lost. But cut it out with the billion dollar damage claims.

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