The debate surrounding the Washington “Redskins” name and logo has been ongoing for over two decades. On July 8, 2015, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee upheld the earlier ruling of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) and ordered the cancellation of the Redskins trademark. Lee agreed that the name “Redskins” is offensive to Native Americans and therefore cannot be protected by the trademark law.
History of the Debate
The legal battle first began in 1992, when a group of Native Americans led by Susan Harjo filed Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. with the TTAB to remove the team’s registrations to the trademark. They claimed that the name was a racial slur against Native Americans, and the court ruled in favor of Harjo to remove the team’s registrations. However, the Washington Redskins successfully appealed in federal court on grounds that there was not enough evidence of the moniker being insulting.
Later in 2006, Amanda Blackhorse and four other Native Americans filed another petition with the TTAB to cancel the trademark. The TTAB once again ruled against the NFL franchise and ordered the cancellation of the team’s six federal trademark registrations because the name was indeed offensive to Native Americans.
Following their defeat in Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc., the Washington team sued Blackhorse and the five Native American activists in an attempt to overturn the decision. The team argued that since there were no objections when the copyright was granted between 1967-1990, the trademark should not be deemed offensive in the present time.
Judge Lee disagreed with the team and stated that under the Lunham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052, the Redskins trademark is ineligible for legal protection because it could disparage or bring people into dispute. In 1898, the word “redskin” was deemed as contemptuous by the Webster dictionary. Judge Lee stated that as a dictionary-defined slur, the name “Redskins” should not have been chosen in the first place.
The decision to cancel the trademark means that the name “Redskins” will no longer have legal protection. The team is still allowed to use the name and fans are still able to buy apparel with the team’s logo, but no legal action can be taken against those who exploit the team’s name for profit.
This will not go into effect immediately because the Washington team still plans to appeal the decision, even if they must take this legal battle to the Supreme Court.