ALBANY — An appellate court has ruled against an upstate school district’s effort to oppose a state mandate to end the use of Native American mascots, nicknames and images in a case that a legal analyst said damages similar legal challenges by four school districts on Long Island.
The state Appellate Division panel of judges on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit by the Cambridge Central School District that has roiled the community and its school board. The local board argued the state was violating free speech and the local rule of schools.
In response to Thursday’s decision, the school district abandoned its effort, planning to seek a new mascot and nickname beginning in January.
The appellate decision exposes the weakness in the arguments of several school districts around the state that sued to keep their decades-old mascots, names and other Native American imagery, said Vincent Bonventre, a distinguished professor of law at Albany Law School.
On Long Island, four similar lawsuits are pending. They were filed by the Massapequa, Connetquot and Amityville school districts. Wantagh and Wyandanch school districts jointly filed a single lawsuit.
“The fact of the matter is that the state of New York, which is responsible for the school districts, gets to decide what New York state wants to say and what New York state doesn’t want to say,” Bonventre told Newsday.
That position is backed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the “government speech doctrine,” Bonventre said.
“There is not going to be a free-speech issue,” he said. “When these schools have an indigenous peoples mascot, that is New York state endorsing it.”
As with many of the school districts that sued, the Cambridge district had used Native American imagery since the 1950s. The district's nickname is Indians.
“The Board of Education exhausted all avenues in relation to the mascot issue,” the district said. “The Board is now committed to moving forward in adopting a new mascot.”
The Cambridge school district had sued after the state Board of Regents in 2021 issued guidance to school boards to discuss with their communities the way that Native American imagery causes “pain, however, unintentionally inflicted.” The district lost in a lower court and appealed to the Appellate Division.
Earlier this year, the state education commissioner flatly prohibited all school districts from using Native American imagery. The appellate judges unanimously agreed that Cambridge’s appeal is moot because of that decision.
The state Education Department cited anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws in its argument. That decision requires all school districts to end use of Native American mascots, imagery, team names and logos by the end of the 2024-25 school year.
Thirteen school districts on Long Island that used Native American imagery to represent the schools were affected by the ban, which threatened the loss of state funding and removal of school officers.
Amityville, the last district to sue, filed last month, asserting it had already spent $1 million on rebranding that retired Native American imagery but kept a version of its “Warriors” logo. Massapequa, which uses the “Chiefs” nickname, was the first district to sue the state over the law, arguing in a September filing that the department had violated the First Amendment and exceeded its authority and due process.