OAKLAND — While the A's are battling it out for first place in the American League West, the team may be facing another battle with the city of Oakland over its policy on fans' homemade signs at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
In a letter to Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts — as well as A's, Coliseum, county and city officials — Oakland City Attorney John Russo said he "strongly (urges Batts) to instruct his officers to refuse to enforce the A's unconstitutional sign policy" at the Coliseum because the policy may not be legal and may leave the city on the hook for damages resulting from its enforcement.
The memo comes after Jorge Leon, 25, of Oakland, was removed from the stadium during the April 7 game against the Seattle Mariners for refusing to put away a sign that said sign that read, "Wolff Lied. He Never Tried."
The sign is in reference to A's co-owner Lew Wolff, who has made little secret of his belief the team's future lies in San Jose. Some Oakland fans question whether he ever wanted to keep the team in the city.
A's spokesman Bob Rose said the team has had a policy in place for more than 30 years banning any signs with negative personal messages and prohibits signs in bad taste aimed at a specific person.
Rose added that the team has received Russo's letter and is reviewing it but currently has no comment.
Russo said that because the Coliseum is a publicly owned stadium, it is a "limited public forum." Therefore, Russo wrote in the memo, "the A's may not impose restrictions against personal attacks or bad taste — unless the restrictions are explained by a legally compelling reason."
Those reasons would include if the sign could incite violence, lawless action, or contains threats or obscenities. Russo said the Wolff sign in question did none of those things and only criticized the team ownership.
"The mere criticism of the A's themselves — or their management — I do not believe will pass constitutional muster," Russo said.
Along with the policy's being unconstitutional, Russo said, the city also could be held liable for damages resulting from enforcement of the policy.
Russo points to two times when courts struck down guidelines governing what signs could and could not be displayed at stadiums because compelling reasons could not be made for the policies. In one of the cases, Aubrey v. City of Cincinnati, the city was held responsible for damages because of its relationship to the police.
Russo said the same could happen in Oakland if city police help remove a fan with a sign the A's deem in bad taste. Oakland police did help remove Leon from the stadium in the April 7 incident.
Leon, who said security told him the sign had to be removed because it included Wolff's name, said he is tempted to bring out the sign again, or another one he has that reads, "Lew Wolff Hates Oakland." A banner with that message was marched around the Coliseum on April 5.
"Yeah, I'm definitely thinking about it," he said.
Russo said he hopes the city and the A's can work together to craft a policy that would protect free speech.
"We're willing to sit down with the A's and fashion a constitutionally sound sign policy," Russo said. "What they have now is unconstitutional."