Trademark Watch: One Team, One Band, Two “Offensive” Names


The Washington Redskins

The Washington Redskins have been taking plenty of heat in recent years from all corners about the NFL team’s name, with a raging debate about how offensive it is (or is not, as the case may be). Owner Daniel Snyder, though, has been adamant that he had no plans to change the name.

The US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademark two years ago. Meanwhile, Snyder’s lawyers asked for the the cancellation to be overturned. After that was denied, the case moved up to the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, where the case was scheduled to be heard in the coming year. On Monday, theUS Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the team to hear its case before the appeals court even took a crack at it, CBS News reports.

Now the team is paying very close attention to a completely different case that has made its way up the chain to the Supreme Court and could help the Redskins argue that their name is not offensive enough to warrant being banned.

It involves an Asian-American rock band called The Slants, a self-described Chinatown Dance Rock group from Portland, Oregon, which had its trademark rejected back in 2011 for being deemed too offensive. The band’s frontman, Simon Shiao Tam, filed the original suit that claimed The Slants have a First Amendment right to the name.

As far as Tam is concerned, using the name is actually a way to turn the slur into a “badge of pride,” Quartz reports. His lawyer, John. C. Connell, argues in his petition to the Court that Tam is not a bigot. “He is fighting bigotry with the time-honored technique of seizing the bigots’ own language,” he writes, citing the hip-hop group NWA’s use of the abbreviated n-word.

The case will be heard sometime in the 2016-2017 session by the US Supreme Court. The Court actually had the choice of hearing the case for the The Slants at the same time as hearing what the Reskins have to say in its own case but the eight active justices declined that option. The Redskins, now 2-2 and in third place in its division, will be paying close attention. If one offensive name can win a case before the Supreme Court, it seems another brand with a controversial name could start chilling the champagne before its own court case gets underway.

As Quartz notes, “For the Redskins, registered trademark would entail broader protections for its expansive team merchandise enterprise, and potentially higher revenues for a franchise seen to be profiting from the perpetuation of a racist stereotype. For Tam, it means vindication of his and the band’s First Amendment rights, and the fruition of a smaller, albeit nobly minded project in subverting racist messaging.”

Even if the trademarks are rejected, the Redskins and Slants could keep using their preferred names but would not be able to protect their trademarks. And as The Slants tweeted today, its trademark case may have no bearing on the outcome of the Redskins case whatsoever: