Legal battle over Redskins’ name continues

A six-year legal battle between a group of Native Americans and the Washington Redskins over the football team’s name continues today, as attorneys for the Native American petitioners plan to file papers asking federal authorities to strike down several of the team’s trademark registrations for “Redskins” on the grounds that it is a racial slur.

The case, Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., is largely symbolic, and the outcome is unlikely have a major impact on the Redskins because trademark officials do not have the authority to halt the sale of goods containing Redskins images or logos, nor can they order the team to pay damages to the petitioners. However, having an unregistered trademark could make it harder for the Redskins to prevent trademark infringers from selling and importing knockoff paraphernalia.

The petition “makes an important statement about the disparaging nature of the team’s name,” said Jesse Witten, an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is representing the petitioners, led by Amanda Blackhorse. “We know the vast majority of team’s fans aren’t racist, but the fact remains they’re rooting for a team whose name is a racial slur.”

The six disputed trademark registrations include the Redskinettes, the football team’s cheerleaders, as well as images of a Native American man used on the team’s helmets.

Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc.was filed in 2006 before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which is part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The office issues patents and trademark registrations to businesses. The case was put on hold between 2006 and 2010 as a separate but similar case, Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, wound its way through the federal court system. In Harjo, first filed in 1992, a federal judge ruled in favor of the team in 2003, finding there was not enough evidence to show the Redskins name was so insulting that it could not be protected by a trademark. The judge also found that the Native American activists who filed the complaint had waited too long to challenge the trademarks. A federal court of appeals upheld that decision in 2009.

The attorney for Pro-Football, Inc., the Redskins’ owner, said the matter was settled by the Harjo case.

“We think the trial judge in D.C. a long time ago ruled there was no substantial evidence the [trade]mark disparaged Native Americans,” said Robert L. Raskopf of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. The team is “one of most well-known pro football teams in the U.S. and a well-respected franchise, that’s what the Washington Redskins means to the public and we’ve demonstrated that to the satisfaction of a court.”

Witten today will file a trial brief, a summary of the petitioners’ position based on interviews with linguists, historians specializing in Native American history and other research. Attorneys for the Redskins will have to file a brief in response.

Catherine Ho covers lobbying at The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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