Packers fan Russell Beckman once would have been the first to admit his federal lawsuit against the Chicago Bears amounted to a “silly, little tiff.”
The Green Bay resident — who has season tickets to both the Bears and his beloved Packers – claims his First Amendment rights were violated when the Bears barred him from walking the sidelines at Soldier Field in his green and gold gear during a 2016 pre-game event. But the issues of free speech he’s raised might have broader implications now that the National Football League has announced new policies intended to stamp out player protests during the national anthem.
When he filed his case last June against the Bears and the NFL in U.S. District Court, Beckman said he would drop the lawsuit only if the Bears let him wear his Packers jersey on the sidelines with his fellow season-ticket holders. But lately he’s been considering the bigger picture.
“[If] they let me wear my Packer stuff on the field, it’s over and done with, that’s what I always said,” Beckman said recently in a phone interview. “Now, I think if I was approached by the (NFL Players Association) or one of the players who kneel, I would go ahead with the case.”
Beckman did a little research and wrote his own complaint, never bothering to hire a lawyer, though he has gotten some informal help drafting his responses to motions filed by the Bears and the NFL. A law firm signed on briefly to represent him but bowed out a few days later. Now he said he’s had more offers of legal help with the lawsuit, which is still pending.
“I really feel a responsibility to get the best team to help me,” Beckman said.
The gist of his argument: The Bears, who play their games in publicly owned Soldier Field, can’t bar him from expressing support for the Packers or discriminate against him for being a Packers fan.
Beckman’s case cleared a major hurdle in March, when U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled against the Bears’ attempt to have the case dismissed, though she did dismiss Beckman’s claim against the NFL. If he manages to press on to a final ruling, his First Amendment argument could impact whether the teams are able to discipline players who kneel during the anthem or engage in other forms of on-field protest.
Marc Edelman, a law professor at City University of New York who has written articles about Beckman’s case and the NFL’s protest policies, said he thinks Beckman has a shot at winning.
“I think he understands the implications of his case, not just for him personally, but for the broader argument over the power of the NFL to control free speech,” said Edelman, who got a call from Beckman after he read an article Edelman wrote for Forbes.com.
Other legal experts concede Beckman’s argument has already notched a small and unlikely victory in a fairly well-settled area of constitutional law. But winning his case outright, even if he manages to get a lawyer to help him, will be an uphill battle, said Martin Redish, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.
“The Bears are a private economic organization, and they have a legitimate concern in not offending their fan base,” Redish said. “Don’t get me wrong. I think the Bears’ policy is wrong and stupid, but it’s not a constitutional issue.”
Gottschall’s ruling was based on Beckman’s arguments that the Chicago Park District, which rents Soldier Field to the Bears, could have had a hand in crafting the Bears’ rule against fans wearing other teams’ gear during a special on-field, pre-game event for season ticket holders, said University of Chicago Law School professor Geoff Stone.
Unless he finds proof that the Park District signed off on the Bears’ policy, Stone gives Beckman about a one-in-10 chance of ultimately winning his case. Constitutional law has generally held that, even if they are renting space in or otherwise lawfully using publicly owned facilities, private entities have a right to exclude people from their activities.
“Think of a similar situation of having a birthday party but in a public park,” Stone said. “You have a right as a private citizen to exclude someone from coming to your birthday party.”