The Supreme Court struck down a law that prevented trademarks from being awarded to certain entities because of terms that might disparage people.
Video provided by Newsy

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of a law that bans offensive trademarks, ruling in favor of an Asian-American rock band called the Slants and giving a major boost to the Washington Redskins in their separate legal fight over the team name.

The justices were unanimous in saying the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes free speech rights guaranteed in the Constitution’s First Amendment.

“It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court.

Although the ruling doesn’t involve the Redskins, it has effectively ended an 11-year legal battle between the team and a Navajo woman from Arizona.

“It does feel like an ending and it’s a disappointing ending,” Amanda Blackhorse said. “It may have killed our case but it hasn’t killed our movement.”

Fighting an NFL team

Blackhorse is a 35-year-old Navajo woman, mother, social worker and Native advocate who lives in Phoenix.

In a 2006 case, Blackhorse and others argued the NFL’s Washington Redskins’ name was offensive to American Indians and therefore not eligible for trademark registration. In 2014, the U.S. patent office’s trademark board agreed and revoked six team trademarks.

Later that year, the team filed a new suit against her and the group to overturn the decision. When a district court upheld it, the team appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which put the case on hold while the Supreme Court considered Matal v. Tam.

That case involved Slants founder Simon Tam, who tried to trademark the band name in 2011 but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the request on the ground that it disparages Asians.

A federal appeals court in Washington later said the law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional and the Supreme Court agreed.

The law that the Supreme Court overturned Monday was “basically the foundation of our case” against the Redskins, Blackhorse said, and the federal appeals court is unlikely to go against the higher court’s ruling. 

Despite intense public pressure to change the Redskins name, team owner Dan Snyder has refused, saying in the past that it “represents honor, respect and pride” for Native Americans. Snyder issued a quick statement after Monday’s decision: “I am THRILLED. Hail to the Redskins.”

Redskins attorney Lisa Blatt said the court’s decision effectively resolves the Redskins’ longstanding dispute with the government.

“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,” Blatt said.

Both slurs, but in different ways

“I was hoping that we would resolve our case separately from the Tam case because they’re so different,” Blackhorse said. 

“This is a victory for them and I can see why, and I’m all about free speech, I think free speech is wonderful,” she said.

“I will definitely support that, and that the government shouldn’t limit free speech, but also the government does have a responsibility to protect vulnerable and oppressed groups as well and that’s the case with us.”

Tam has insisted he was not trying to be offensive, but wanted to transform a derisive term into a statement of pride. The Redskins also contend their name honors American Indians, but the team has faced decades of legal challenges from Indian groups that say the name is racist.

Tam said the band was “beyond humbled and thrilled” with the ruling.

“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,” he said.

“We want to cancel this because it is disparaging to us,” Blackhorse said. “I feel like we could have prevailed if our case was heard separately.”

Word still offensive, and this isn’t the end 

Blackhorse wants to make one thing clear: This ruling was not about whether or not the word “redskin” is offensive.

“In the lower courts, for all these years, it has been deemed offensive,” she said. “It’s just that now you can register anything that is offensive. The Supreme Court has laid that out today.”

“But I also feel like we have won on a larger scale. … It is now concrete in the eyes of the public in this nation, and even throughout the world, that the R-word is disparaging and that it needs to change.”

She expects she or others will find news ways to fight the team.

Coincidentally, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a non-profit that Snyder created to combat the naming controversy, is scheduled to host a youth football training camp Tuesday through Thursday in Fort Defiance, Arizona, next to the Navajo Reservation.

“We are planning not to protest our people but to show the Washington team they are not welcome in our community,” Blackhorse said. “Just because this ruling happened today, it doesn’t mean our fight has stopped. It will continue.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Katherine Smith, defender of Navajo land, dies at 98

Homeowners fight push to change ‘offensive’ street name at base of Piestewa Peak

Read or Share this story: