By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice said on Friday it would defend the constitutionality of a government tribunal's decision to cancel the trademarks owned by the NFL's Washington Redskins because they are offensive to Native Americans.
The department said in a notice to the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where the team is seeking to overturn the decision, that it would intervene to defend a key aspect of federal trademark law that prohibits disparaging trademarks.
The NFL franchise said that the disparagement section of the law violates its First Amendment free speech rights, according to its lawsuit.
The suit was filed in August against the five Native Americans who successfully convinced an administrative tribunal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last June to void the marks. The agency said a substantial number of Native Americans found the marks to be disparaging.
Jeffrey Lopez, attorney for the Native Americans, said he was pleased with the government's action and that it would help his clients prevail in the case.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria declined further comment.
The tribunal's decision put more pressure on the Washington club to change its name following decades of criticism by Native Americans, who say it is a slur.
A canceled trademark would deprive the club of the ability to use the federal trademark symbol and block import and sale of counterfeit Redskins goods.
In a separate case that could have implications for the Redskins' legal fight, Asian-American rock band The Slants argued in court on Friday its name is a healthy reappropriation of a term usually considered a slur and the band should be granted a trademark despite government objections.
The Redskins case is Pro-Football Inc v. Amanda Blackhorse et al, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, No. 14-cv-2043.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Ted Botha and Andrew Hay)