The Washington NFL team lost in court Wednesday when a federal judge ordered the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to schedule cancellation of six federal trademark registrations owned by the club, ruling that the team’s name — “Redskins” — was disparaging to a significant composite of Native Americans when the marks were originally granted.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee emphasized that the team remains free to use the name as it chooses and that the ruling means only that the team loses the specific legal protections of its federal registrations, which remain in effect until all potential appeals in the case are heard.
Lee’s ruling affirms the findings of the patent office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which last year ruled in favor of Amanda Blackhorse and four other Native Americans who sought cancellation of the registrations. The team had sued in district court to overturn that ruling.
The team is likely to appeal Wednesday’s decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. The team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Today’s ruling by the District Court resoundingly affirmed the Trademark Office’s decision that the team’s trademark registrations should never have been issued,” attorney Jesse Witten said in a statement. He represents Blackhorse and the other petitioners in the case.
Lee rejected the team’s contention that trademark cancellation infringes on its free-speech rights. “The federal trademark program is government speech and is therefore exempt from First Amendment scrutiny,” Lee wrote in the conclusion of his 70-page ruling.
The team argued in a hearing before Lee last month in Alexandria, Va., that it could not be proved that a significant composite of Native Americans found the term “redskins” disparaging during the years that the federal registrations were granted. But Lee ruled that “the evidence before the Court supports the legal conclusion that between 1967 and 1990, the Redskins Marks consisted of matter that ‘may disparage’ a substantial composite of Native Americans.”
Those legal terms — “significant composite” and “may disparage” — come from the Lanham Act, which bars federal trademark registration for marks that may disparage or bring into disrepute particular groups or individuals. The original trademark case against the team using the Lanham Act came in 1992, when Suzan Harjo led a group of Native Americans who challenged the federal registrations.
The patent office’s appeals board ruled in favor of Harjo and her fellow petitioners in 1999, but the team appealed in federal court and won in 2003 when the court ruled the petitioners had waited too long after turning 18 years old to file their complaint. The Blackhorse case, which began in 2006, used younger petitioners. Lee ruled against the team’s argument that the Blackhorse petitioners waited too long not only by citing their ages, but “because of the public interest at stake.”
Even if the team were to lose all appeals, it could continue to enforce its trademarks in state courts and under common law. But team attorney Robert Raskopf argued in last month’s hearing before Lee that losing the circled R that comes with federal trademark registrations would be a significant blow to the team, which has invested money and goodwill in its marks for decades.
The decision also figures to be a loss for the team in terms of public relations. The fight against the team name, which goes back decades, was re-energized last year when the patent office’s appeals board issued its ruling.