Supreme Court gives Washington NFL team a big win in battle over ‘Redskins’ trademark

“Disparaging” trademarks are now protected by the constitution.

Washington Redskins football helmets are seen on the field during an NFL football team practice, Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Ashburn, Va. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Wass
Washington Redskins football helmets are seen on the field during an NFL football team practice, Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Ashburn, Va. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Wass

Washington D.C’s NFL franchise scored a big victory in its ongoing battle to preserve its racist name.

On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government is not allowed to deny a trademark to companies or other applicants solely on the basis of the name being offensive

The case before the Supreme Court centered on an Asian-American band called The Slants, but their decision bolsters the Washington NFL team’s fight to retain the trademark on its nickname, which was once used to refer to the bloody scalps of Native Americans.

In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) ruled that the Washington NFL team’s name was “disparaging to Native Americans,” and cancelled six of its federal trademark registrations. The team has been appealing that verdict ever since.

A district court in Virginia upheld the cancellation in 2015, and so the team appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which put the case aside while The Slants case—officially Matal v. Tam—was considered by the Supreme Court.


After the verdict was announced, the team and its brazen owner Daniel Snyder celebrated the newly endowed constitutional protections granted to their racist nickname.

“The Team is thrilled with today’s unanimous decision as it resolves the Redskins’ long-standing dispute with the government,” Washington’s attorney Lisa Blatt said in a statement. “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 law at the heart of Matal v. Tam was the 1946 Lanham Trademark Act, which prohibited trademark registrations that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

In 2011, the PTO ruled that the Asian American rock band and its founder Simon Tam could not trademark “Slants” because it would violate the act. Tam pushed back on the decision though, arguing in countless interviews that the band was trying to reclaim the slur and use is a “badge of pride.”

“After an excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years, we’re beyond humbled and thrilled to have won this case at the Supreme Court,” Tam said in a statement on Facebook. “This journey has always been much bigger than our band: it’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves.”

But while the Slants and Washington NFL team have the Lanham Trademark Act in common, their cases differ in other ways — most notably, the Washington NFL team is not made up of Native Americans who are trying to reclaim an offensive name. Rather, it is owned and run by rich white men who are appropriating a slur and caricaturing a group of marginalized people for entertainment and exploitative purposes.

This SCOTUS ruling protects Washington’s First Amendment right to do just that.

Considering Washington plays in a league that has shown absolutely no interest in preventing the team from using the name, there seems to be no end to the R**skins nickname in sight.


UPDATE: Change the Mascot, grassroots campaign that works to educate the public about the damaging effects on Native Americans arising from the continued use of the R-word, issued a statement in response to the Supreme Court ruling.

“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 the end this hateful and degrading slur,” Change the Mascot leaders National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata and Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said.

“This is an issue we have always believed will not be solved in a courtroom, and this ruling does not change some very clear facts. 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 statement continued. “This is a word that was screamed at Native Americans as they were dragged at gunpoint off their lands — and the hate-infused meaning of the word is precisely why this particular name was given to the team by avowed segregationist and first team owner George Preston Marshall.

“And the problems caused by the R-word epithet are still very real and present today. Social science research has shown that its continued use has devastating impacts on the self-image and mental health of Native Americans, particularly children.”