John Banzhaf III has an impressive record of making a nuisance of himself on behalf of noble causes.
The George Washington University law professor played a leading role in pushing cigarette advertising off television and radio in 1970. He improved safety standards for school buses. Blocked dry cleaners from charging women more than men for laundering their shirts.
Now Banzhaf has focused his sights on a new, high-profile target — the name of Washington’s professional football franchise — and team owner Dan Snyder has grounds to worry.
Banzhaf has opened a useful new legal front in the swelling campaign to pressure Snyder to change the name. He has filed one legal petition and threatened more to block renewal of federal broadcast licenses for radio and TV stations that routinely use the team’s name on the air.
That would include almost every broadcast outlet in the country.
Banzhaf’s argument: The team name is a racial slur, offensive to many Native Americans, so airing it is against the public interest.
He says the term violates Federal Communications Commission standards against indecency, profanity and hate speech.
If the FCC could make a huge fuss with CBS for briefly exposing Janet Jackson’s nipple during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Banzhaf says, then it ought to be able to use its weight to push an offensive term off the airwaves.
“Despite whatever the origins of the word ‘R*skins’ may be, or the original intent of the owner who first gave the team its name, the evidence is now overwhelming that the current meaning is an offensive demeaning racial swear word, not only to many Indians, but also others,” Banzhaf wrote in a Sept. 2 FCC filing.
Banzhaf’s cause got a rhetorical boost two weeks ago when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler denounced the team’s name. He is the second member of the five-person FCC to express concern over it.
“I don’t use the term personally, and I think it is offensive and derogatory,” Wheeler told Broadcasting & Cable, a trade publication.
Wheeler urged Snyder to change the name on his own, without formal FCC action, because it was the right thing to do.
“I hope that this is something that if enough people express themselves, Dan Snyder can see which way things are going,” Wheeler said.
In going to the FCC, Banzhaf is following a strategy similar to the one he used against tobacco ads as a young lawyer in the late 1960s. He filed an action requiring broadcast companies to give free time for anti-smoking messages.
It’s hard to know what the FCC would ultimately decide about the Washington football team’s name. There’s little or no precedent for such a ruling.
But Banzhaf’s effort has lots of potential to create headaches for broadcast stations, which in turn can put pressure on the team and the National Football League.
The FCC typically grants broadcast license renewals within four months. But even a whiff of legal opposition can cause considerable delays.
“In practice, anything that’s filed against a license renewal application tends to add at least six months to the process, and often two or three years, or more,” said John Garziglia, a District-based communications law attorney.
The stations can continue to operate while the renewal is on hold. But delay can make it difficult for an owner to sell a station or get loans.
Broadcasters enjoy First Amendment safeguards for free speech. But Garziglia said the stations’ dependence on the federal licenses makes them vulnerable to public pressure.
“Stations should probably take a second look at using words that large segments of the population think are offensive,” he said.
Banzhaf is not the first to recognize that the FCC might be a tool to push for a name change. Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt and 11 other top communications law experts wrote Snyder last year warning him the name might run afoul of FCC guidelines.
But Banzhaf is apparently the first to take action with the FCC.
His Sept. 2 filing aimed to block renewal of the license for WWXX (94.3 FM), a Snyder-owned radio station in Prince William County. The activist has also sent formal notices to four major Los Angeles TV stations warning that he plans similar filings against them.
Banzhaf said his filings “hang like a sword of Damocles over the stations.”
A man who defeated the tobacco industry deserves to be taken seriously.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney .