ALEXANDRIA, Va. — For the first time in a legal battle that has stretched over 20 years, a federal judge on Wednesday ordered the cancellation of the Washington Redskins‘ trademark registration, ruling that the team name may be disparaging to Native Americans.
The ruling does not bar the team from using the Redskins name if it wishes. The team could even still sue for trademark infringement, but winning such a case could prove more complex without the legal protections that come with a federally registered trademark.
Redskins president Bruce Allen said the team will appeal.
“I am surprised by the judge’s decision to prevent us from presenting our evidence in an open trial,” Allen said in a statement Wednesday. “We look forward to winning on appeal after a fair and impartial review of the case. We are convinced that we will win because the facts and the law are on the side of our franchise that has proudly used the name Redskins for more than 80 years.”
Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative and the leader of the Change the Mascot campaign, which works to educate the public on the damaging nature of the “redskin” moniker, issued a statement in response to Allen.
“If something happening decades ago was reason alone to continue doing it, then America would still have Jim Crow laws and Confederate flags would still be flying on top of state capitol buildings. Bruce Allen’s comments perfectly illustrate why the NFL has a crisis on its hands: at a time when America is demanding an end to outdated symbols of bigotry, one of the league’s teams insists on continuing to promote, market and profit off an offensive and racist symbol.
“The NFL must take action against an owner and his team, which have clearly lost control of themselves to the point where they are going to court to try to continue slurring people of color.”
The ruling by Judge Gerald Bruce Lee affirms an earlier finding by an administrative appeal board. The judge ordered the federal Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the registration.
Lee emphasized in his 70-page ruling that the organization is still free to use the name if it wishes — the team would just lose some legal protections that go along with federal registration of a trademark.
The team had sued to overturn a ruling against it by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. The team argued that cancellation of its trademark infringed on its free-speech rights because it required the government to judge whether the name is offensive.
Jesse Witten, an attorney with Drinker Biddle & Reath, the law firm that represented the Native Americans in the case, said in a statement that Lee’s “decision is a victory for human dignity and for my courageous clients who have waited so long for this ruling.”
Earlier Tuesday, Jeff Lopez, a lawyer for the Native Americans who challenged the team’s name, said he expected the Redskins to appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. But he said that Lee’s ruling was an across-the-board victory for his clients and that he is confident it will be upheld.
Lopez said his clients are hopeful the team will heed the decision and change its name.
In rejecting the team’s free-speech argument, Lee cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month allowing the state of Texas to bar depiction of the Confederate battle flag on specialty license plates sought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Joel Barkin, spokesman for the Change the Mascot campaign, also made a comparison to the Confederate flag in reacting to the ruling. He noted how quickly the culture has shifted views in rejecting the Confederate flag and in accepting same-sex marriage, and said the team and the National Football League will find themselves on the wrong side of history if they continue to defend the name.
Team owner “Dan Snyder and the NFL have to face the fact that we have a changing country,” Barkin said. “How long do they want to fight that?”
Specifically, Lee said federal law allows the government to exercise editorial control over the content of the trademark registration program, and he equated trademark registration to government speech as opposed to private speech.
Lee said the legal standard for canceling the registration is whether the name “may disparage” a substantial composite of the Native American community. Though the team has maintained that the name honors Native Americans — citing evidence that Native American high schools have adopted Redskins as a team name — Lee said there is ample evidence that the name may be perceived as disparaging. He cited the fact that Native American leaders have been objecting to the name for decades, along with dictionary citations that the word is typically considered offensive.
Amanda Blackhorse, one of the Native Americans who filed the most recent challenge to the team’s name, said in a statement that she is pleased with the ruling.
“I have asked this many times before and have never heard a sensible answer — if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?” she said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Source: ESPN Sports Judge upholds ruling against Redskins’ trademark