The United States Supreme Court rejected a request from the Washington Redskins to hear the team’s appeal of an earlier decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that cancelled the team’s trademark protection.
Back in April of this year, the Skins appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to rule as unconstitutional a law permitting a trademark to be barred if it “disparages” others. In June 2014 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office [PTO] ruled the Redskins cannot trademark their team name because federal law prohibits the registration of any trademark that is “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.”
In 2015, a federal judge upheld the PTO ruling. It is that federal decision the Redskins asked the Supreme Court to overturn.
In their appeal, the Redskins cited a list of ridiculously offensive trademarks, including DUMB BLONDE beer, CRACKA AZZ SKATEBOARDS, WHITE GIRL WITH A BOOTY apparel and OH! MY NAPPY HAIR shampoo. The team argued the nickname was not offensive to Native Americans, even though the PTO canceled the team’s six trademarks at the request of Native American activists who found the term offensive and, by definition, “a ‘redskin’ is the scalped head of a Native American, sold, like a pelt, for cash.”
However, the Supreme Court did agree to hear a case brought by the Asian-American rock band The Slants, which challenged the PTO’s policy based on the band’s First Amendment rights. A ruling in favor of the band in that case would likely be a victory for the Skins.
In a separate case, Lee v. Tam, in December 2015, a federal court of appeals ruled that The Slants could trademark their name despite the fact that many find it offensive. “The government enacted this law – and defends it today – because it disapproves of the messages conveyed by disparaging marks,” wrote the court in its decision. “It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys.”
However, Amerindian groups argued that the “refusal to register a trademark does not impair the applicant’s free speech rights under the First Amendment.”
Losing its trademark would not force the Redskins to change the team name, but could enable others to make money selling goods with the team name and/or logo without paying the NFL.