Distraction or freedom of speech?

By By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

Two members of a soccer fan club were ejected from a Real Salt Lake exhibition game earlier this month 20 minutes before the match was scheduled to end–a move that has prompted questions about free speech at the U.

Several members of the Chinese National Team stopped playing and threatened to step off the field after a handful of fans started waving Tibetan flags, a cardboard cutout face of Chairman Mao–the founder of the People’s Republic of China–and a sign with the numbers “6-4” written in Chinese–a reference to June 4, 1989, when the Chinese Government opened fire on protestors in Tiananmen Square.

After being threatened by authorities for the second time, most of the eight to 12 people holding up flags stopped. Only two of them refused to stop and were escorted off the Rice-Eccles Stadium property.

Ergo the freedom of speech controversy.

The fans–who are members of the Rogue Cavalier Brigade, an unofficial RSL club–said their freedom of speech to protest against communism and China’s government was silenced after they were asked to put away their signs and asked to step outside of the stadium by U police.

Although the phone numbers of the fans were unavailable, Colin Coker, who was one of the two people kicked out of the game, told The Associated Press he was surprised at RSL’s response to his protest.

“I was really, really shocked. I couldn’t believe this was happening in this country,” Coker said.

RSL spokesman Trey Fitz-Gerald said they were not “trampling the fans’ constitutional rights.” Instead, Fitz-Gerald said they were escorted out of the stadium because they were distracting the game and ruining the entertainment experience for the 11,000 other fans.

“They had been allowed to say and do what they wanted for the first two-and-a-half hours since the gates were opened,” Fitz-Gerald said. “It was only because the Chinese team stopped playing that we stepped in.”

Even though RSL is a private organization, it sets policies “in concert” with the U while renting the arena, said John Koluder, senior manager of media relations with RSL.

U spokesperson Coralie Alder would not comment on the issue and instead referred questions to RSL personnel.

According to the RSL and U policy printed on the back of every game ticket, “Using (the) ticket results in a contract between the user and the University” and each participant agrees to “comply with applicable state law and University regulations.”

So although U campus policy protected the fans’ speech from being censored, the pair was kicked off the field because of their “unruly behavior,” Koluder said.

And it wasn’t the first time. Fitz-Gerald said members of the Rogue Cavalier Brigade had been escorted out of soccer matches because they were chanting and partaking in “obscene behavior,” which included holding an inflatable penis in the stands.

According to the brigade’s website, members’ “language and behavior in the section is no different than what one experiences at other sporting events.”

Since the event, RSL and the group have held dialogues about free speech where the fans have admitted that they were “doing all those things to get the competitive advantage,” Fitz-Gerald said.

“Some people just love bringing attention to themselves,” he said.

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RSL staff escort fans out of Rice-Eccles for waving Tibetan flags at the friendly against the Chinese National Team last Thursday.