Walker signs bill rolling back road blocks on Indian team names

December 20, 2013

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Dan Reiland, File)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has signed a controversial piece of legislation that will make it more difficult for the state to require schools to change team names that may be offensive to Native American tribes.

The bill rolls back a 2010 law, signed by Walker’s Democratic predecessor, that would force schools to change potentially offensive team names and mascots if complaints were filed. Native American tribes in Wisconsin had urged Walker to veto the legislation, which passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate earlier this year. He signed it Thursday.

In a statement, Walker said protecting freedom of speech outweighed those complaints.

“If the state bans speech that is offensive to some, where does it stop?” Walker said in the statement, first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “A person’s or persons’ right to speak does not end just because what they say or how they say it is offensive. Instead of trying to legislate free speech, a better alternative is to educate people about how certain phrases and symbols that are used as nicknames and mascots are offensive to many of our fellow citizens.”

Walker said he hoped schools would change their team names voluntarily. But the legislation also voids state orders aimed at changing team names at Mukwonago High School, which had refused to change its name. The 2010 law required two other school districts to change team names; the Osseo-Fairchild district changed its high school’s name from the Chieftains to the Thunder, and the Berlin Area School District had until July 2014 to change its high school’s Indian mascot.

The new law, which goes into effect this weekend, will allow complaints against a team name to be considered if submitted along with signatures equal to 10 percent of the student population in the district, the Journal-Sentinel said.

Those complaining will have to prove the team name promotes discrimination, and any complaints will be heard by administrative law judges at the Department of Administration, a department under Walker’s control.

A member of the Oneida Indian Tribe who led a state Native American task force on mascots and team names said she would consider legal challenges to the new law.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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