As a 107ist member, as a season ticket holder, and as an Oregonian, I would like to express my concern with the Timbers/Thorns front office’s plans for enforcing the updated MLS Supporter Code of Conduct. I am especially concerned about the decision to permit displays that support a specific political ideology, and which are often used to belittle, humiliate and dehumanize a significant part of our citizenry.
I refer of course to the Timbers/Thorns front office’s continued turning of a blind eye toward the display of the American flag by both supporters and the organization, and to its tradition of performing the national anthem before games.
Let me be the first to acknowledge that the American flag had a long history of standing for many of the values that the Timbers, Thorns, and their fans continue to espouse to this day – especially our shared beliefs in political freedom. However, it has long been obvious that this symbol has been appropriated by partisan political operatives, and that it has ceased to be a symbol of American unity. Today it is, unfortunately, primarily used to advocate for specific political purposes. If the Timbers as an organization are sincere about enforcing the Code of Conduct as written, it is difficult to see how the use of this symbol could be permitted.
It is well documented that not only is the flag used far more often to support candidates of one major political party than the other, but that the flag has been co-opted by numerous far-right political movements in the United States. Groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, who have frequently incited violence at events in Portland, deliberately use the American flag as a symbol to suggest that other Portland residents are less than welcome.
The American flag is also widely used by militia groups and by anti-immigrant advocacy organizations, not only in their own branding, but as a specific attack on non-citizens. Events sponsored by and supporting immigrant groups are frequently counter-protested through deliberate use of the American flag, again as a statement that immigrants are unwelcome. The national anthem has likewise been staged at events as a specific form of protest targeting citizens and non-citizens alike. We have even seen these hateful displays used in public schools as a form of targeted harassment against both non-citizen children, and those of non-European descent.
In all of these cases, the deliberate message expressed by the use of the American flag and the national anthem is the same: “We are real Americans, and you are not.”
The use of the American flag to attack values of tolerance and inclusion and to specifically support anti-immigrant candidates and their political agenda is widespread and very well known. It would strain credibility to suggest that the American flag is not an explicitly political symbol that is used to express a variety of political – and often overtly partisan – views.
The Supporter Code of Conduct explicitly prohibits “political...or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior.” According to the presumably well considered reasoning expressed by the Timbers/Thorns Front Office in their letter to the 107ist banning the use of Iron Front symbology, it is clear that the continued display of the American flag likewise should not be tolerated, and for the exact reasons that the letter points out:
- It is a symbol that has clearly been appropriated by radical elements and often deployed in a context of violence.
- It is clearly used as a symbol of politics, is intended to be exclusionary, and is antithetical to the inclusive TA, Riveters, Timbers and Thorns ethos.
- Its use raises security concerns that are no different than with the Iron Front symbol.
…But of course…
The truth is that it is not all political speech is targeted by the Supporter Code of Conduct. An enormous amount of signage at MLS games – both by supporters and by the league itself – is unquestionably political and always has been. The real purpose and effect of the rule is not to ban all political speech – it is to allow the league a pretext to prohibit specific political speech that it or its sponsors do not like. It is a content-based restriction, and indeed we have seen so far in 2019 that the league appears likely to use this power to target specific political viewpoints. (And, conspicuously, does not intend to use it to target others.)
The suggestion in the letter that the rule is intended to ban “any signage that’s political” from matches is transparently false, as was essentially admitted when noting, “there is still a fair amount of local discretion teams can apply.” There is no intention to ban *all* political signage, only some of it.
It is undoubtedly true that Iron Front symbology makes some fans uncomfortable, as do numerous other symbols used around the stadium – including the American flag (and those of numerous other countries.) Of course for many fans, and perhaps most, the American flag is a very positive image, symbolizing hope and our aspirations to be better than we often are. As with all political speech, different listeners are going to react to it differently. Our reaction to those differences should be based on our shared belief in freedom of expression, and not to simply ban that speech with which we do not agree.
Major League Soccer is a private entity that may set whatever rules it sees fit. However, the City of Portland has a constitutional obligation to ensure that any restrictions on speech at city owned property are viewpoint neutral and as narrowly tailored as possible to avoid injuring the First Amendments rights of its citizens. The City of Portland does not escape this constitutional obligation when it leases city owned property to a private entity, and Major League Soccer and the Portland Timbers chose to accept this limitation on its management of the space when it opted to run a franchise in a publicly owned stadium.
In framing the question as political v. non-political speech in the Supporter Code of Conduct, MLS has been deliberately deceptive. The Timbers, the TA, the league and you yourself have all routinely engaged in political speech during matches and other events. The team has taken stands on explicitly political issues, and expressed political viewpoints that have made some fans uncomfortable because the team – and you yourself, I imagine – believed it was the right thing to do. I hope that tradition continues, because we should want our civic institutions to stand up for what is right when they can. But make no mistake, just because we agree with a statement supporting our shared humanity, the statement is no less political. It’s just a political statement we agree with.
Today, unfortunately, Major League Soccer and the Timbers seek to prohibit speech with which they apparently do not agree. That is not just disappointing; it is deeply problematic.
I sincerely hope that both MLS and the Timbers’ front office reconsider their decision to ban specific political speech from matches while clearly allowing in others. Such decisions are disingenuous, are counterproductive, and break with the trust of supporters who have helped build the league into what it is today.
- Matt Shields, Section 104