Op/Ed: Let’s debate mascot without the Heckler’s Veto

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By Scott D. Cousins, Special to The Times

On January 18, 2018, Mike McGann of The Times published an important editorial called “Unionville mascot discussion a worthy topic.”  Mr. McGann and I agree on many things, particularly issues related to First Amendment principles and the importance of the Unionville community having a respectful debate regarding the Unionville High School mascot.  I disagree, however, with Mr. McGann’s view it is “uni[n]formed to use any ethnic moniker for sports teams.” 

With respect to public, taxpayer funded schools, there are two important First Amendment principles at stake in this debate:  free speech and the “heckler’s veto.”  Of course, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, each side to the Unionville mascot debate has the right to express its views.  Neither side, however, has the right to shut down opponents using the heckler’s veto—or, to some, “no-platforming” or “derailing.”

Let me explain.

First Amendment principles of free speech become thorny when someone engages in offensive speech.  For example, I find the protests at military funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church hateful.  The U.S. Supreme Court, however, found such protests to be protected by the First Amendment.  Nobody’s feelings are hurt when I condemn these protests because surely there is consensus in the Unionville community that such acts are offensive.  But because of the passions surrounding the Unionville mascot, feelings can be hurt when some argue that the school should maintain the Unionville mascot.  To Mr. McGann, that viewpoint is uninformed.

In response to that charge, opponents of changing the mascot can refuse to express their opinions for fear of being accused of being in desperate need of “an increased understanding of history.”  While remaining silent, of course, is not very satisfying, that is exactly how the heckler’s veto works—it shuts down diverse viewpoints.  Alternatively, opponents can express their opinions, but risk hurting the feelings of others or offending proponents of change by “microaggressions”—small, non-physical slights that are highly offensive to some.  The clear implication is, of course, that anyone who opposes changing the mascot secretly hates Native Americans.  And that is the heckler’s veto.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam, that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office improperly denied a request by four Asian-Americans to trademark the name of their band “The Slants.”  In that case, the National Congress of American Indians argued that “Native American” sports imagery “perpetuates stereotypes in which American Indians are seen as participating in scalp taking, war-whooping, and expressing themselves in ungrammatical grunts, ughs and other tontoisms.”  Justice Alito rejected that argument (and others), writing:  “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

I’m not suggesting that Native Americans have never been victimized.  To the extent that Native Americans are being unfairly discriminated against today, I will stand and fight that discrimination.  Simply claiming that Native Americans were victimized in the past, however, is unrelated to “whether ‘Indians’ is the best tribute” regarding the Unionville mascot.

The history of Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe goes back over 10,000 years.  They were known as fierce warriors and diplomats.  We honor the tribe by the Unionville mascot.  And I’m sure that we can all agree that the Unionville Snowflakes doesn’t have the same impact on opposing sports teams as the Unionville Indians.  We should study the proud history of Native Americans and understand why it’s so important that the victimization of those great nations never happen again.

By our very nature, Americans are typically polite, decent and respectful of opposing viewpoints.  Social media, however, has changed the way that we debate each other.  What we have today is one big tribal conflict (pun intended) with each side wrestling and preening for the moral high ground.  It’s hard to have an open and honest debate when proponents of an issue believe that their opponents are people who lack good faith.  To be sure, in order to have reasoned and candid debates about matters that impact all of us, we cannot be worried about offending another or improperly invoking the heckler’s veto.  Diverse viewpoints might be uncomfortable for one or both parties to a debate, but that’s how to prompt further reflection, perhaps leading to the changing of minds.

As an opponent of changing the Unionville mascot, my job is to try to convince Mr. McGann that my view has more merit than his view, without name-calling.  His job is to convince me that his view has more merit than my view, without name-calling.  While we both feel passionately about our respective positions, we can have this debate without the insults.  So, everyone toughen up—let’s have a public debate about the merits of the Unionville mascot that includes consideration of all diverse viewpoints.  But let’s do so respectfully, without the heckler’s veto.

Scott P. Cousins is a Director at the Bayard, P.A. law firm in Wilmington and a Unionville resident and parent.

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