MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill Thursday that will make it harder to force public schools to drop tribal nicknames, pushing aside opponents’ charges that the measure is racist.
The Republican measure requires a petition to trigger a state review of a nickname — a departure from current law, which states a single complaint is enough to prompt an evaluation. It also wipes out all previous state orders for schools to drop race-based mascots.
Walker, a Republican, signed the measure privately Thursday afternoon. He released a statement saying he’s worried current law infringes on free speech. A person’s right to speak doesn’t end just because what they say is offensive, he said. The best approach is to educate people about how some phrases and symbols are offensive when used as nicknames and mascots, he added.
“If the state bans speech that is offensive to some, where does it stop?” Walker wrote. “I personally support moving away from nicknames or mascots that groups of our fellow citizens find seriously offensive, but I also believe it should be done with input and involvement at the local level.”
Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s mascots and logos task force, said Walker’s free speech arguments make no sense. Government entities such as schools don’t have free speech rights, she said.
“(The bill) is an example of institutionalized racism in content and process,” Munson said. “It’s a poke in the eye with a sharp stick to all Wisconsin tribes, and it is an act of discrimination leveled directly at our children.”
The bill cuts against the grain of a decades-long movement away from American Indian mascots, logos and nicknames that has seen Stanford University change from the Indians to the Cardinal and Seattle University drop Chieftains for Redhawks. Last year, Oregon’s Board of Education decided to cut state funding to schools that don’t retire Indian mascots. This year the Oneida Nation in upstate New York launched a national drive to pressure the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change their nickname.
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