Briefing Begins in Case Affecting Washington Redskins Trademark

The United States Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a case that will affect the “Redskins” trademark used by the Washington team in the National Football League. In 2014, the U.S. Trademark Office cancelled the football team’s trademark at the request of Native American groups under a provision of the federal trademark law that prohibits registration of “disparaging” words and phrases. That action by the Trademark Office was upheld by a federal circuit court. However, the same federal appeals court later reversed itself and reached the opposite result in a case involving an Oregon band that calls itself “The Slants.” In that case, the federal court ruled that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech permitted the band’s trademark to be registered even if it was hurtful to some people or groups.

The U.S. Supreme Court will now resolve this conflict and the Trademark Office has filed its opening brief with the Supreme Court. In its brief, the Trademark Office argued that “The Slants” are free to use the name but that the government, through the Trademark Office, is not required to promote what it considers to be a racial slur by registering it as a trademark. Therefore, the Trademark Office contends that it can deny registration of the trademark along with the protection that trademark registration gives the owner. The band will file its answering brief in the coming months.