BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education voted Monday to sue to attempt to block a public vote on a state law that requires the University of North Dakota’s athletics teams to be called the Fighting Sioux.
The board approved the lawsuit after meeting by telephone with state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who said he was confident the law violates the North Dakota Constitution. The constitution gives the board broad powers to manage the state’s 11 public colleges, Stenehjem said.
Board members described their decision as a defense of their constitutional prerogatives, while nickname supporters described it as an affront meant to silence voters.
“In the wake of very serious problems within the North Dakota university system, our state Board of Higher Education has instead decided their priority should be trying to use the legal system to disenfranchise the voters of North Dakota,” a spokesman for the referendum campaign, Sean Johnson, said in a statement.
The university has been trying to retire the nickname and a separate logo that shows an American Indian warrior’s square-jawed profile. Last November, the North Dakota Legislature repealed a state law that required UND to use the nickname and logo.
However, nickname supporters filed referendum petitions last week with North Dakota’s secretary of state, Al Jaeger, to revive the pro-nickname law. It is now back in effect.
If Jaeger decides the petitions are valid, the question could be put on North Dakota’s June 12 statewide primary election ballot. Voters would then decide whether to uphold the law, which requires the university to keep the nickname and logo, or repeal it.
Stenehjem said he expects to file paperwork with the North Dakota Supreme Court within a week, asking the court to block the issue from going to a statewide vote. Stenehjem said he believes the Supreme Court has to take the case immediately, without having it first handled in a North Dakota district court.
He said he hopes the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case by mid-March.
The NCAA has imposed sanctions on the university for using the nickname and logo. The association says the school cannot host post-season tournaments, and its teams won’t be able to wear uniforms with the nickname or logo in post-season play.
During Monday’s meeting, board members argued about whether the law requires UND teams to wear uniforms with the nickname and logo. They decided to leave that issue up to the university, which favors uniforms without them.