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Stadium fans have a right to display signs of the times

I remember the time I decided to make a sign to take to a sporting event. I was 12, and my dad had gotten tickets to a Chicago Bears game, and I intended to celebrate this special event by printing a message on a bed sheet that I would then hold up sometime during the game. I didn't have anything profound or witty to say; the sign would be less a message to my fellow football fans than a sort of preadolescent yip.

The making of the sign was no fun. The sheet moved too much, the felt-tipped pen stuck, the letters drooped. I think the sign was to say GO BEARS, but I'm not sure, because I never finished it. I got bored and read the Sunday comics instead. The weather turned bad, and my dad and I decided not to go to the game.

I never displayed my banner, and come to think of it, I never made another one. But I've always felt that should I be moved to do so, I could make another banner saying almost anything I pleased and take it to a pro game anywhere in the U.S. and exercise my historic right as a fan to show it to anyone who cared to look.

Now I find out that maybe I can't. There has been a series of crackdowns on banner rights in recent months. First, on June 11 a New York Yankee fan named Andy Padian was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for marching through the stands at Yankee Stadium with an anti-George Steinbrenner sign. Later in the season plainclothes security personnel at the Stadium removed from the upper deck signs displayed by spectators that were critical of Yankee management, while other guards prevented fans from unfurling a banner that also attacked management.

Not long after that, fans' banners were confiscated at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati during a Bengal game and at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego during a Charger game. The reasons given by management for each act of literary repression: The banners were inappropriate, i.e., not in keeping with the spirit of boosterism expected by the proprietors of the games. For the record, the San Diego banner read WELCOME TO ORTMAYER'S HOUSE OF SHAME.

Let's look at the latter inflammatory message, displayed at the Chargers' final preseason game, against the Phoenix Cardinals. Steve Ortmayer is the Chargers' director of football operations, a man who some people feel has not done a great job of building up one of the NFL's doormats. Berating Ortmayer is not a nice thing to do, but it falls well within the tradition that says a fan may boo a lousy quarterback, make noise while the opponent has the ball and wear a sack on his head when the home team stinks.

But the Chargers, like the Yankees and Bengals, don't buy that reasoning. Instead, they take the "It's our game and you'd better act the way we want or else" approach. They'll toss out any sign they don't like. "And why?" says Jack Teele, who is the director of administration for the Chargers. "Because we pay the rent."

Aha! But is that enough to give one license to act as the Banner Gestapo? Allisyn Thomas, a deputy city attorney for San Diego, isn't so sure. "Obviously, [Jack Murphy Stadium] is a public property," she says. "And certain constitutional requirements concerning free speech and freedom of expression have to be adhered to by tenants." Riverfront Stadium and Yankee Stadium are also publicly owned structures.

The Chargers counter by pointing out that all banners at the stadium must meet four decency criteria: They must 1) be germane to the game, 2) contain no profanity, 3) not block anyone's view and 4) not be "disparaging." Ignore the "germane" part for the moment; what does disparaging mean? "Oh, you know," says Teele. "If it said 'Screw the L.A. Times' or 'Fire Ortmayer.' "

Fancy that. The Chargers now defend out-of-town newspapers!

Enter the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), defenders of causes large, small and sometimes bizarre. "By allowing banners, they've created a public forum which requires that views be aired," says Linda Hills, executive director of the San Diego ACLU. "They can't just ban the views they don't agree with."

And what about those "germane" banners that trash opposing teams? Nobody ever takes down San Diego banners that rip into the L.A. Raiders, for instance. Is that fair?

It looks like war. Once you get the civil liberties folks cranked up, you know you're talking serious issues and Bill of Rights analysis. To avoid all that, I have a solution for disgruntled fans. Here's a form letter for your signs that can get your message across without being profane, disparaging or ungermane:

Dear (choose one) Owner, President, Coach, Emperor:

I sing the song of you. I am blessed to enter your abode. I kiss your feet.

Your Humble (pick one) Servant, Lackey, Tool, Pet Dog,

(Signed) Your Name