The Bears will not be forced by a federal judge to let a man wear Green Bay Packers gear as he stands on the sidelines at Soldier Field before the two celebrated rivals face off.
At least, not this Sunday.
That was the upshot of a 21-page order from U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall on Thursday, who refused to grant that request from Russell Beckman. The die-hard Packers fan has been locked in a legal battle with the Bears for more than a year.
Still, Beckman has said he would likely be on the sidelines during warm-ups Sunday, even if the judge shot him down. He told reporters earlier this week, “maybe you guys should be there to see what I wear.”
Gottschall heard more than an hour of arguments Wednesday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse over whether Beckman should get to wear his Green Bay apparel near the field. For years, Beckman has been a Bears personal license owner and season-ticket holder. Previously, he participated in a program that offers season-ticket holders a chance to stand on the edge of the playing field and watch players warm-up before a game.
In the past, he says, he has worn his Packers apparel.
After using points to purchase a chance to do so again in 2016, Beckman said the Bears announced the team would not allow opposing team apparel on the field. He decided to show up in his Packers gear anyway, only to be turned away.
Beckman has raised a First Amendment claim. He insists the team is effectively a government actor because it is “inextricably intertwined” with the Chicago Park District — the owner of Soldier Field — in its implementation of the program he wants to participate in. The Bears deny it.
The Bears have also said that, from a marketing perspective, the team thinks it would be damaged if it allowed fans to wear opposing team jerseys on the field.
In her ruling Thursday, Gottschall said Beckman has made “a fairly modest showing” that his lawsuit could be successful. And she noted that the Bears “do not say with much specificity how they will be harmed.”
However, she said, “The Bears appear to believe that seeing a person wearing Packers gear in the Bears’ end zone will hamper their fans’ enjoyment of the game.”
And at this point, the judge said, there’s not enough evidence to tip the scales in Beckman’s favor.
His attorney, Michael Lieber, still predicts a victory in the case.
“The judge today said the parties’ arguments to the court were essentially a tie ball. But a tie ball goes to the home team at this juncture,” he said in a statement. “This case is in its early stages. As we proceed through discovery, we expect that the facts will show that the Bears are so entwined with a public entity — the Chicago Park District — that the Bears must uphold all Soldier Field patrons’ First Amendment rights. And that includes fans of opposing teams.”