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December 22, 2010

Schools go to war with Nazi-insignia clothing company

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/schools_go_to_war_with_nazi-insignia_clothing_company_20101222

Will T-shirts and other items bearing logos and designs resembling World War II Nazi insignia become the latest fashion trend in an Inland Empire school district?

Clothes by the Irvine company Metal Mulisha are currently banned by the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, but the company wants back in.

This won’t happen if Rabbi Barry Ulrych, a child of Holocaust survivors, can prevent it. His 80-family synagogue, B’nai Chaim of Murrieta, was founded in the 1970s by Jews living near Murrieta Hot Springs, many of them Holocaust survivors. The congregation is located in the middle of the school district, and many of the congregation’s children attend district schools.

Designs on the clothing line, including shirts, caps and belts, show, among other things, a human skull wearing a helmet resembling those worn by German soldiers during World War II.

On the company’s logo, the “S” in “Mulisha is represented graphically by a lightning bolt that resembles the double lighting bolts insignia of the German Schutzstaffel, the “SS.”

“People say it’s just a fashion — it’s more than that — it’s an identity,” Ulyrch said. “These symbols are not as neutral as one might think. Symbols can hurt, and some symbols are intimidating.

“With this symbolism, they are glorifying the Nazi past. You can’t go through life being ignorant of symbols,” he added.

According to Karen Parris, a school district representative, in September the district received a letter threatening a lawsuit from lawyers representing MM Compound Inc., the licensee for Metal Mulisha.

In the letter, the company claims the ban to be a violation of its Constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression and strongly urges the “schools to revoke the applicable provision of the dress code.”

The letter goes on to say that on an individual level, “Metal Mulish founders and riders are devout Christians, espousing those values prized in the religious community … Metal Mulisha members and apparel stand as positive reinforcement to students interested in motocross ...”

However, Parris cited the district’s responsibility to create a “safe place for students to learn” as the rationale for Murrieta’s dress code policy.

The district’s policy covers “clothes that have any offensive content, hate or defiance, and garments that students may find intimidating or offensive, including Nazi or neo-Nazi symbols,” Parris said.

“Even if a student is unaware that what they are wearing is Nazi or neo-Nazi, it could still cause a fight,” she added.

Metal Mulisha officials did not respond to multiple attempts for comment. The company’s legal representatives maintain in their letter that the district’s “implied association” of their name with “neo-Nazism or racism” is “unfounded and defamatory.”

According to the First Amendment Center’s Web site, “Many school districts have turned to dress codes and uniforms to promote a better learning environment. They argue that these policies decrease tensions, reduce socio-economic differences and enhance safety.”

The company’s letter presented that Metal Mulisha’s apparel “does not interfere with the schools’ work or the rights of other students to be secure and to be left alone.”

“The district should be able to ban certain fashions or dress that could hurt feelings,” Ulrych said. “There are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the school district.” 

The apparel line got its start in 1999, inspired by a free-style motocross team, some of whose members have medaled in the X Games; it describes itself on its Web site as speaking “the language of nonconformity with distinctive apparel.”

The clothing and licensed products are sold at PacSun, Sport Chalet and Toys R Us, including locations in Los Angeles.

Since the story was reported in the Los Angeles Times, Parris said, the district “has received e-mails and phone calls in support of its position.”

Nevertheless, Parris said, “Faced with a potentially expensive lawsuit, the district lawyers are now negotiating with the manufacturer in an attempt to resolve the issue.”

At a time when the district is facing major budget cuts, “It could cost hundreds of thousands to defend this in court,” she said. 

“Some of the images might touch a nerve,” said Joanna Mendelson, California investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, who has seen Metal Mulisha’s line. “The images are not replicas, though they are edgy, and one might perceive them as promoting Nazi imagery.”

Adding to the sensitivity toward the imagery is the area’s recent history.

“Murrieta has had a history of white supremacist activities,” Mendelson said, “and the Inland Empire in general is a hotbed for hate.”

“We see references to Metal Mulisha online on white supremacist message boards, as well as tattoos,” she said.

Ulrych noted the good quality of the area’s school system and the increasing number of young families who have moved to the area in recent years.

“A school should not take lightly the symbols that walk its grounds,” he added.

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