The NFL franchise in Washington, D.C., received a major boost in its fight to save its controversial “Redskins” name Monday morning, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in a separate legal dispute.
At issue is the team’s federal trademark protections for the nickname, which Native American activists have described as a “dictionary-defined racial slur.” The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board invalidated those trademark protections in 2014, ruling that the name was “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus violated a clause in a federal trademark law.
The Supreme Court, however, struck down that clause Monday, ruling that the law’s prohibition on providing federal trademarks for disparaging terms or logos violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
The court’s ruling came in a case brought by a band named “The Slants,” which also lost its trademark protections after the trademark board said the moniker was disparaging to Asians and Asian-Americans. The band’s members are all Asian-American, and they argued that they were re-appropriating the term, rather than using it disparagingly.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear The Slants’ case last year, after a lower court declared the anti-disparagement clause in trademark law unconstitutional in 2015.
“The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social ‘volatility,’ free speech would be endangered.”
The ruling won’t put an immediate end to the football team’s case. The Supreme Court last year rejected the team’s petition to have its case heard alongside The Slants’ case, and the team’s appeal of the initial trademark board ruling is still winding through lower courts.
It will, however, almost certainly lead to a reversal of the trademark board’s ruling, saving the team’s six trademark protections it had canceled. The team celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling in a statement Monday morning.
“The Team is thrilled with today’s unanimous decision as it resolves the Redskins’ long-standing dispute with the government,” the statement from attorney Lisa Blatt read. “The Supreme Court vindicated the Team’s position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or cancelling a trademark registration based on the government’s opinion.”
The ruling is another major setback for Native Americans who have fought to change the team’s name for nearly 50 years. After years of protesting and asking the team’s owners to change the name, the activists began targeting the trademark protections in 1992, under the view that the anti-disparagement clause provided a leverage point against the nickname.
The trademark board handed them a victory in 1999, ruling against the team and canceling the trademarks. But that ruling was overturned in federal court in 2003, and the case died when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in 2009.
A new group of activists filed a similar complaint against the team in 2007, asking the trademark board to once again review the name. The board ruled against Washington’s team in 2014. A year later, a federal court also ruled in favor of the activists in a separate lawsuit brought by the team.
The franchise and its owner, Daniel Snyder, immediately appealed the ruling, arguing that the disparagement clause violated the First Amendment. The case has been on hold pending the result of The Slants case.
In response to Monday’s ruling, Snyder released a statement via the team: “I am THRILLED! Hail to the Redskins.”
Snyder has said he would “NEVER” change the name. Even if the team lost the trademark protections, it wouldn’t be forced to drop the name. It would simply remove any federal protection for it, opening the team up to legal uncertainty and potential financial losses should they keep it.
The Native Americans who petitioned the board to invalidate the team’s trademarks said in a statement that they were “disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they also made the case that the name is still disparaging to Native Americans.
“The Supreme Court has held that Congress cannot keep disparaging trademarks out of the federal registration program,” they said, “but the Court did nothing to cast doubt on the prior judicial findings that the Washington NFL team’s name and trademarks disparage Native Americans.”
Change The Mascot, a nonprofit that has campaigned to change the team’s name, called on the NFL to push for a name change despite the ruling.
“Washington’s football team promotes, markets and profits from the use of a word that is not merely offensive ― it is a dictionary-defined racial slur designed from the beginning to promote hatred and bigotry against Native Americans,” the campaign said in a statement. “If the NFL wants to live up to its statements about placing importance on equality, then it shouldn’t hide behind these rulings, but should act to end this hateful and degrading slur.”
This article has been updated with comment from Change The Mascot.