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GREEN BAY – Russell Beckman has attorneys to quarterback his lawsuit against the Chicago Bears.

The First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law and attorney Michael Lieber of Lieber Law Group LLC, Chicago, will represent Beckman in his federal lawsuit.

Beckman, a Green Bay Packers fan and Bears season ticket holder, sued the Bears because the team would not let him wear his Packers garb on the sidelines when he participated in a 2016 pre-game event as part of a season ticket holders' rewards program.

"This is a case that has implications that go beyond Russ Beckman's desire to wear his jersey," said Jeff Powell, a law professor and director of the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law.

Beckman's argument has been that the Bears lease Soldier Field from the Chicago Park District and their finances and operations intersect with the park district to such a degree it makes the Bears a state actor. In other words, what happens at Soldier Field is a public, not private, activity, as it might be where a team owns its stadium outright. He argues the Bears violated his First and 14th Amendment rights.

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In March 2018, a federal judge in Chicago said Beckman's case could proceed, but the Bears filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider her decision. There is no deadline for her to rule.

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Beckman initially represented himself. He said the judge strongly encouraged him to obtain professional representation, which he worked on over the summer.

"It has always been my hope that law students would be working my case. I am honored that the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School will be representing me," Beckman said. "I have tremendous confidence the Duke students representing me will do an excellent job. I am happy that my case will contribute to the professional development of these aspiring young lawyers."

Lieber and Powell say Beckman has a strong First Amendment case. 

"The Chicago Bears decided that they wanted to play at a stadium funded by taxpayer dollars and owned by the people of Chicago," Lieber said. "At this public facility, it is obvious that the Chicago Bears can’t prohibit fans of the opposing team from sitting in the stands while wearing their team’s jersey. And if the Bears decide to let all season ticket holders have a pregame sideline experience, that means they have to let them have this experience even if they are wearing the opposing team’s jersey.

"Instead, they prohibited my client from partaking in that experience, simply because he was wearing the 'wrong' jersey. That’s a violation of his First Amendment rights."

The First Amendment covers freedom of speech and the 14th Amendment requires equal protection of the laws.

Beckman said fans who are not in the particular season ticket holder program are allowed to wear non-Bears jerseys on the sidelines.

A 1977 case built on a similar argument, Ludtke vs. Kuhn, resulted in equal access to professional sports locker rooms by female reporters.

On March 30, a U.S. District Court judge in Chicago dismissed Beckman's attempt to include the NFL in his lawsuit and a request for class-action status but determined his claim against the Bears could continue. He filed the complaint in June 2017.

Powell said Beckman got the case off to a good start.

"He's done an absolutely splendid job. So far, he's winning the fight," he said. 

The student lawyers will be directed by Powell and Nicole Ligon, who came to Duke from Cahill Gordon & Reindel, a prominent international law firm in New York.

The First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law is funded by a grant from The Stanton Foundation, created by broadcasting pioneer Frank Stanton. The clinic exists to enable people who might not otherwise afford to make First Amendment claims do so, and to provide student attorneys with real-world experience. 

The clinic received its grant in February and launched in August but already is very busy, Powell said.

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Powell has taught at Duke Law since 1989 and received Duke University’s Scholar/Teacher Award in 2002. From 2011 to 2012, he was deputy assistant attorney general in the federal Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the president, attorney general, and other executive branch officers. From 1993 to 2000, he held a variety of roles at the Justice Department, including principal deputy solicitor general.  

Lieber, who has represented clients in federal courts and more than a dozen state courts, has an interesting backstory. He's a football fan from Indianapolis who attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where many of his friends were New England Patriots fans. Needless to say, anytime New England won and the Indianapolis Colts lost, his friends gave him a hard time. When the Patriots were accused of deflating the football in the AFC championship game in 2015, which New England won, he saw his opportunity for payback.

He launched an online retail outlet that sold limp, foam football hats called the Airhead. He worked with Foamation Inc. of Milwaukee, creators of the iconic Cheesehead brand.  He got national media coverage and sold about 1,500 Airhead hats.

His friends conceded that he got his payback.

Lieber's legal focus includes financial, manufacturing, class action and media law.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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