State officials’ war on high school mascots threatens local control.
I am proud to have grown up in Massapequa. Like many communities on Long Island mindful of their history, Massapequa uses a sports name of Native American character for its high school. “Once a Chief, Always a Chief” is a unifying message for students who have represented the school in athletic competition and those who have not.
But Albany officials have a different view of what these logos and others like them across the state represent. Earlier this month, James N. Baldwin, a senior deputy commissioner for the New York State Department of Education, issued a directive to administrators regarding school-sponsored organized sports. It read, in part, that districts continuing to “utilize Native American team names, logos, and/or imagery” that fail to replace them by the end of the 2022–23 school year will face penalties, including “the removal of school officers and the withholding of State Aid.”
Most would understand if the directive took aim at depictions of Native Americans that were obviously mocking or represented with intent to offend. But this is not what is happening in Massapequa and the other targeted jurisdictions. Instead, New York officials are acting on behalf of unnamed (if not imagined) individuals offended by high school mascots they have never seen, at games they have never attended, in towns they have never visited.
The Supreme Court has long recognized that using “offensive” as a standard for government regulation of speech and expression is not permissible. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment,” Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in 1989, “it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Albany’s directive raises questions about the relationship of state government to government at the local level. We should start by asking why the State of New York would want to withhold funding for math, science, reading, and other educational endeavors because some public official doesn’t like the logo on a school uniform. Talk about using a sledgehammer to crush an ant.
The pandemic threat may be largely over, but the authoritarian exercise of power that characterized the state’s Covid response is not. In 2020 and 2021, the state enforced classroom mask mandates under the threat of withholding state education funds. Albany is now using that same power to eradicate so-called offensive imagery. What are the limits to state power over a district’s school system—a system designed to be both state and local—if all directives from Albany can contain a “comply or we will destroy your children’s education” clause? The danger with a controversial policy initiative enforced through disproportionate consequences—most public schools cannot function without state aid—is that they are designed not to foster dialogue and debate but to silence all challenges.
Albany officials are stressing that their new mandate—call it the “Don’t Say Chiefs” directive—allows for individual districts to get “approval from a recognized tribe” in order to continue using the names and logos. This is a red herring, however: it’s easy to envision that future officials could change the arbitrary allowance, insisting that schools get consent from at least two tribes, or three, or twelve.
Those celebrating this mandate because they agree with it regardless of the process used to impose it, or those unfazed by it because it doesn’t affect them, should think twice. They may soon find themselves on the other side of the fight when state officials hand down another fund-threatening order—one that directly threatens their own children’s schools.
Photo: Dmytro Varavin/iStock
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