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Native Americans ask agency to revoke 'Redskins' trademark

David Hudson
First Amendment Center

05.28.98

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Attorneys for a group of Native Americans argued before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board on Wednesday that the Washington Redskins should lose trademark protection for the nickname, because they find it offensive.

In the 6-year-old case, Harjo v. Pro Football, Inc., seven Native American activists, led by Suzan Shown Harjo, contend the federal trademark law—the Lanham Act—doesn't allow protection for disparaging terms.

One section of the Lanham Act states that "no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless it consists of or comprises scandalous matter or matter which may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute."

Raymond D. Apodaca, one of the seven activists, told The Washington Post: "'Redskins' is the absolute, unquestionably worst term. There is no context in which the term 'Redskins' is not offensive. There is no context in which it is not insulting, pejorative or racist."

Stephen Baird, attorney for the Native Americans, told free!: "We have mountains of evidence that Native Americans view this term as a racial slur. It is striking to me that the team failed to call a single Native American to say the term was not disparaging."

But, Robert Raskopf, attorney for Washington, D.C.'s professional football team, contends the term is not disparaging. "First of all, we argue the term is not offensive. Secondly, we argue that even if the term is offensive, the petitioners are incorrect in equating offensive with disparaging," he told free!

"The trademark in question, which was first designated for trademark protection in 1967, is fully protected commercial speech," he said.

However, Baird said that "prior cases have found disparagement when persons targeted by the mark are offended. The case law says the general public's views are irrelevant.

"In this case the First Amendment is not implicated," he said. "The team will not have to change its name if we prevail. This is a case about the federal government giving its imprimatur to a racial slur."

Both Baird and Raskopf said they were pleased with the hearing and expressed confidence in a favorable outcome.

The trademark board is expected to rule in three to four months.

Related stories:

  • Native Americans tackle 'Redskins' in legal arena 4.20.98
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