The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday intervened in the court fight over whether Washington’s football team should be able to legally trademark the name “Redskins,” saying in a brief that it will defend the government against Washington’s claim that a law preventing the trademarks is unconstitutional.
Attorney General Eric Holder has called the team’s name “offensive,” but the Justice Department is not taking a position on whether the name should be changed. Rather, it is intervening solely “for the limited purpose of defending the constitutionality” of federal trademark laws, according to the brief it filed Friday in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia (via Zoe Tillman).
The court case resulted from a government decision in June that invalidated six of the team’s federal trademark protections in June. In that decision, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board ruled that the use of “Redskins” was “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus violated Section 2(a) of the federal trademark law known as the Lanham Act, which prohibits the government from offering trademark protections for disparaging terminology.
Pro Football Inc., the name under which the team does business, responded by suing Amanda Blackhorse, the Native American who brought the trademark challenge against the name, in District court. As part of its suit, the team argued that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is unconstitutional because it “effectively chills” First Amendment rights to free speech.
According to the brief, the Justice Department is “entitled to intervene” in cases where plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of federal laws. DOJ will next file a memorandum in the case responding to the charge that the trademark law is unconstitutional.
The constitutionality of the law is not the only issue at hand in the case; the court is also tasked with determining whether the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board’s ruling was correct under the Lanham Act. But even if the Justice Department is not taking a position on the name itself, attorneys for the Native Americans challenging the name welcomed the government’s role arguing one of the primary issues in the case.
“We are very pleased they are intervening on our side,” said Jesse Witten, one of the attorneys representing Blackhorse. “It will be a big help.”
Washington lost a similar ruling in front of the trademark board in 1999, but the case was overturned on appeal four years later. Attorneys on this challenge believe they have fixed the issue that led that appeal’s success, though it could be years before the case comes to a full conclusion. The next pretrial hearing in the case is set for January 15.
In addition to the trademark issue, the team’s name has faced regulatory scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC in December rejected a petition from a George Washington University law professor that sought to sanction broadcasters that repeatedly use the name on air.