High court won't hear case involving Redskins' nickname

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A nearly two-decade legal challenge by Native American activists to the nickname of the Washington Redskins came to a close Monday when the Supreme Court declined to review the group's last loss in federal courts.

The justices declined without comment to reconsider a lower court's ruling that the activists waited too long to bring their assertion that the nickname is so racially offensive that it does not deserve trademark protection.

"Obviously, we're quite pleased; it's been a long road," said Robert Raskopf, a lawyer for the team since the suit was first filed in 1992. "We're not surprised the court didn't see any issue worthy of review."

Philip Mause, who represented the challengers, said the activists were "disappointed" by the court's decision but not yet resigned to accept defeat. A new group of challengers has filed the same trademark cancellation suit in hopes that their slightly different circumstances can avoid the procedural bar that halted this case.

Raskopf said the team is not worried about the new complaint. "I think we're very confident with our likelihood of success," he said.

Through the years, the team has steadfastly defended the use of the Redskins nickname as honoring Native Americans, not disparaging them. When based in Boston, the team was known as the Boston Braves and was renamed in 1933 as the Redskins. The team said in its brief to the court that the new name was "in honor of the team's head coach, William 'Lone Star' Dietz, who was a Native American."

The team became the Washington Redskins in 1937, when it moved south.

Native American groups have persuaded scores of high school and college teams to rename their mascots. The National Congress of American Indians told the justices in a friend-of-the-court brief that the Redskins name is "patently offensive, disparaging, and demeaning and perpetrates a centuries-old stereotype."

But despite vociferous protests, the team has not budged. Under both former owner Jack Kent Cooke and current owner Daniel Snyder, Raskopf said, there has never been "even a whisper" about changing the nickname.

For the most part, though, the battle has been fought on the more mundane grounds of legal procedure, and even a victory by the activists would have cost the team only trademark protection and would not have forced it to abandon the name.

The battle began in 1992 when seven activists, led by Suzan S. Harjo, challenged Redskins trademarks issued in 1967. They won a decision seven years later from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which said the name could be interpreted as offensive to Native Americans.

Trademark law prohibits registration of a name that "may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, . . . or bring them into contempt, or disrepute."

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