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Clergyman 1, Cincinnati Reds 0

Questions of free speech arise in the oddest places. One expects them at Dartmouth College. Somebody is always spouting off along Seventh Avenue in New York. But who's going to take the Constitution to a ball game?

The Rev. Guy Anthony Aubrey of Cincinnati, that's who. His evangelistic crusade provides one more chapter in a large volume of cases arising under the First Amendment. The amendment says, in effect, that government may not abridge freedom of speech. Aubrey says the city of Cincinnati abridged his freedom by letting the Reds take his sign away.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel described the situation in an opinion handed down a few weeks ago. It all began during game two of the World Series of 1990 between the Reds and the Oakland Athletics.

The Reds had reason to believe that Aubrey might make his presence known. The gentleman is an ordained minister whose particular mission is to spread the Gospel according to St. John. He pursues his mission by going to televised football, hockey and basketball games. There he displays a sign from John 3:16: "For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."

The facts are not in significant dispute. Aubrey says that he arrived at game two, bearing his 2-by-3-foot sign, but before he could reach a section where signs are permitted, security officers grabbed him. The officers say they did not act until Aubrey actually was in his seat, holding up his sign behind home plate.

In any event, the cops escorted Aubrey to a holding room beneath the stadium. They took away his sign. The reverend brought suit. Everybody filed depositions, and the case went to trial on cross-motions for summary judgment. On Feb. 28, Judge Spiegel handed down his opinion. After one inning the score is Aubrey 1, Reds 0.

This was the Reds' policy: "Ballpark patrons are permitted to bring signs and banners to the stadium. They must be in good taste (as determined by Reds' management) or the banner will be removed . . . The only restrictions are the banners cannot interfere with the sight-line of the batter, pitcher, or umpire looking down the foul line or in any way that obstructs the view of anyone in the stands. Reds' management reserves the right to remove any banner or sign that is viewed to be in bad taste or is causing an obstruction."

What is good taste? What is bad taste? The Reds told the court that they interpreted the policy to mean that signs must be "game-related." The policy is aimed at preserving an atmosphere of peanuts and crackerjacks. Thus the management tries to protect the fans from signs that intrude political, social and religious issues into the happy hours of a ball game.

The trouble, said Judge Spiegel, is that the Reds themselves were confused about their own policy. The director of operations thought that "Go Reds, John 3:16" was in bad taste. "God loves the Cincinnati Reds" seemed okay to him.

At the time of the 1990 World Series, Operation Desert Storm was heating up along the Persian Gulf. The Reds determined that signs supporting the use of military force against Iraq were in good taste, even though the signs were not game-related.

"In light of these examples," said the judge, "we have no hesitancy in concluding that the Reds' banner policy of good taste is substantially overbroad and vague on its face. The Reds' policy leaves too much discretion in the decisionmaker without any standards for that decisionmaker to base his or her determination."

Accordingly, the court ruled narrowly that the policy as enforced could not be sustained. Judge Spiegel did not say that Aubrey has a constitutional right to promote the Gospel at a ball game, and he did not hold that Riverfront Stadium is a public forum. These are questions to be addressed on down the line.

My own sympathies lie entirely with the Reds. They rent Riverfront from the city, and they ought to have some authority to protect fans from being proselytized or politicized while a game is going on. Preachers certainly have their place in a free society, but that place is not behind home plate. Play ball!

Universal Press Syndicate