The Washington Redskins have a new opponent in their court fight to retain their controversial trademark: the Obama administration. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice filed notice of its intention to intervene in the long-running battle over whether the Washington Redskins can legally maintain the trademark on their name.
Last June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademarks upon finding that the marks and the name “Redskins” were disparaging to Native Americans. In the team’s appeal of that ruling the Redskins argued that the section of the Lanham Act that prohibits the registration of offensive trademarks was “overly vague and ambiguous” and impermissibly interfered with their First Amendment right to free speech. The team also claimed the ruling stripped the team its intellectual property rights in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
The DOJ has joined the battle because the Redskins, in its appeal, raised a constitutional challenge against the Lanham Act, which is a federal law. The Department issued a statement declaring that it is “dedicated to defending the constitutionality of the important statute ensuring that trademark issues involving disparaging and derogatory language are dealt with fairly.” The statement went on to say that the Department will fight “to maintain the ability of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to make its own judgment on these matters based on clear authorities established by the law.” Translation: “The statute is not ‘vague and ambiguous’ and therefore it does not infringe on the Redskins’ constitutional rights.”
What’s amazing in all of this is that, in 2015, we have an iconic NFL franchise, presumably led by intelligent and capable individuals, that somehow believes it has a right under the laws of the land to continue using a name that is clearly derogatory and offensive to many Native Americans and others. What’s worse, this battle is not over tradition or history; this battle is over money. The Redskins are fighting to maintain their trademarks so that they can continue to have the exclusive right to use the name, and sell products bearing that name, in the marketplace. If their trademark is canceled, the financial value of the name would be diluted, as scores of individuals and companies would flood the market with competing products bearing the Redskins name.
There are passionate voices on both sides of this issue who have and continue to make their positions known. While the public debate will never have a winner, at some point soon the court will render the only opinion that matters. The DOJ has made it clear that it will oppose the team’s constitutional challenges and that it will support and uphold the right of the Patent and Trademark Office to interpret and apply the law as it deems fit.
That’s good news for all who believe that no one should have a right to peddle offensive trademarks for any reason, especially at a profit. That’s exactly what the Redskins are doing and it’s long past time for it to come to an end. As a Dallas Cowboys fan, and more importantly, as someone who does not believe there should be a legal right to disparage others for profit, I am doing what I have always done when it comes to the Redskins: I am rooting for them to lose.