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Have the San Jose Sharks violated fans’ freedom of speech?

Watch any NHL game on television, and you may not remember what the fans seated in back of the home bench were wearing that night.

Watch any San Jose Sharks home game on television, and the oddity of the image lingers: Neon pink letters around a cartoonish logo of a muscle-bound tough guy bending jail bars, on a shirt that promotes a local bail bonds company.

Here's the thing: The Sharks argue that "promotion" of a business on a T-shirt at the game is actually "advertising." So the team changed its dress code at HP Pavilion for the 2011-12 season: Prohibiting ticket holders from using their tickets to "generate publicity for the purposes of promoting and/or marketing other businesses."

Which means, going forward, the team intends to ban Bad Boys Bail Bonds T-shirts behind the players' bench.

Which means they now have a 260-pound problem on their hands named Jeffrey Stanley, who owns the company.

"My constitutional attorney says we have a legal right to wear the shirts at the game," Stanley told us on Monday.

Bad Boys Bail Bonds was founded in 1998 by Stanley, and now has seven offices in California. He's been a Sharks season-ticket holder for around a decade, and currently has two seats behind the home bench and two seats behind the visitors' bench — a seating request from his daughters, who wanted to be on the glass. They've worn the bail bonds shirts to the game for years.

Last season, Stanley decided to further his relationship with the Sharks by buying ad space behind the benches and sponsoring the penalty box, which seems like a rather appropriate venue for a bail bonds company.

The total outlay for the sponsorship, according to Stanley: $70,000.

The deal lasted only a season, as Stanley decided not to re-up as an arena sponsor. "We really didn't get that much attention. You gotta realize that you're on that screen for seconds. It wasn't enough bang for our buck," he said.

A few days after Stanley told the Sharks that he wouldn't be renewing, he was contacted by his sales rep who told him that the Sharks were changing the arena policy on wearing items of clothing that promote businesses; and the Bad Boys Bail Bonds shirts would be banned from the Shark Tank.

This email, provided by Stanley, outlined the policy and the consequences:

Have the San Jose Sharks violated fans’ freedom of speech?

Stanley was stunned to read about the repercussions for violating the policy, which is now referenced on the back of every Sharks ticket.

"If they feel like you're advertising or marketing on a T-shirt, they'll kick you out," he said.

He felt the new restrictions were retaliatory for his company not renewing their ad deal with the team. More importantly, he felt it was a violation of his First Amendment rights.

"It's equal protection. The building's owned by the city. There are a lot of issues that are involved," he said.

From the Mercury News, which first had the story:

For a franchise that chooses to make its own bold fashion statement in teal, it's a risky maneuver. And as the arena's landlord, the city of San Jose could be at least partly on the hook for any lawsuit in which the Bad Boys prevail.

"It really gets kind of crazy stupid when cities that claim to be strapped for money invite lawsuits," said Bad Boys attorney Don Kilmer. "If they lose, they have to pay attorney fees and costs to the prevailing party. And unless they're going to start imposing a dress code (on everyone) to go to Sharks games, I don't see how they get around an equal protection challenge."

Assistant city attorney Ed Moran said the Sharks' apparent attempt to single out Bad Boys Bail Bonds for a T-shirt ban, particularly in a building filled with T-shirts promoting all sorts of "other entities" -- including rival teams, scriptural doctrine and D.B. Cooper -- "sounds troubling."

The Sharks confirmed the ban of shirts with advertising to Yahoo! Sports' The Post Game. They also issued a statement before an exhibition game last weekend to CBS San Francisco:

"The purpose of the policy is to protect the investment of [the team's] corporate partners from an individual or group buying tickets to get in and using those seats to market a product or a service or business."

Here's the CBS report on the controversy (click the image to watch):

Have the San Jose Sharks violated fans’ freedom of speech?

Since he received the letter about the policy change, Stanley has worn his shirt to a preseason game with no punishment or recourse from the Sharks and their arena personnel.

"I thought they were going to take some action the other night," he said, adding that he had a number of fans come up to him last weekend wearing their own corporate logos and showing support.

The Sharks open their home regular season on Saturday, Oct. 8 against the Phoenix Coyotes. He and his family intend to wear them in their seats on opening night — and they may not be alone.

"We had quite a few people contact us who were upset about the story, and wanted to come pick up some T-shirts," said Stanley. "That was kinda cool."

(We're left envisioning a 'V For Vendetta'-like scenario in which an army of clown-wigged, bail bonds-shirted clones march on the Shark Tank.)

So Stanley will fight the policy, risking $20,000 in season ticket fees and his fantastic seats at the rink.

Because it's what he believes in — along with believing in the Sharks.

"I love the team. I love the coaching staff. I don't wish any ill will towards them," he said. "We just have a difference of opinion with the administration. The marketing and sales staff needs to be very careful where they're treading."

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