NFL's Redskins urge judge to restore trademarks in slur fight

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2015 2:41 PM

By Lacey Johnson

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - Lawyers for the NFL's Washington Redskins urged a U.S. federal judge on Tuesday to reinstate six trademark registrations that were canceled last year for being offensive to Native Americans.

A U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tribunal, in making its ruling, had said it found that at least 30 percent of Native Americans found the name "Redskins" disparaging from 1967 to 1990, when the trademarks were registered.

The Redskins appealed the ruling to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, filing suit last August against the five Native Americans who successfully convinced the administrative tribunal at the patent office to void the trademarks.

Judge Gerald Lee made no immediate ruling in the case.

The implications of losing the registered trademarks would be "severe and manifold" for the team, and the move also violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the National Football League team's trademark attorney, Bob Raskopf, said in court on Tuesday.

"It's one of the most valuable marks in sports," he said.

A canceled trademark would deprive the team of the ability to use the federal trademark symbol or to defend its right to sell merchandise bearing the mark. The trademark protection will remain in place until the appeals process is completed.

An attorney representing the five Native Americans said their goal was to stop the usage of the term "Redskins."

"All we can do is cancel the registration – a registration that never should have been granted in the first place," attorney Jeffrey Lopez told the judge.

U.S. trademark law forbids the registration of marks that are disparaging.

Attorneys for the Redskins argued that the word was not offensive to a substantial number of Native Americans between 1967 and 1990, pointing to a Native American band that performed during a Redskins halftime show in 1977. Children from 80 tribes competed to perform in the band, and the National Tribal Chairmen's Association endorsed the show, said Raskopf.

"Native Americans have been on record for over 40 years about this," countered Lopez. "The term is a slur term."

Citing tradition and history, team owner Daniel Snyder for 14 years has defied calls to change the club's name, which dates from the 1930s.

A patent office tribunal also canceled the Redskins' trademarks in 1999 in a similar case. A court overturned that decision on appeal, saying the petitioners had waited too long to assert their rights after the first Redskins' trademark was issued in 1967.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Heavey)