Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University and has testified in Congress about the shift of power in the federal system to federal agencies.
The decision this past week by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to rescind federal trademark protections for the Redskins may ultimately tip the balance in the controversy over the 80-year-old name of Washington’s football team. If so, that would be a shame. Not because there’s insufficient reason to consider the name “disparaging to Native Americans,” as the patent office determined. Many of us recoil at the reference to skin color as a team identity. The problem is that the Redskins case is just the latest example of a federal agency going beyond its brief to inappropriately insert itself in social or political debates.
Few people would have expected the future of the Redskins to be determined by an obscure panel in a relatively small government agency. Yet the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board showed little restraint in launching itself into this heated argument — issuing an opinion that supports calls for change from powerful politicians, including President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The board had at its disposal a ridiculously ambiguous standard that allows the denial of a trademark if it “may disparage” a “substantial composite” of a group at the time the trademark is registered.
This standard isn’t concerned with how widely offensive a trademark may be now, or with how the general population or even a majority of the group in question views it. It didn’t matter to the patent office that polls show substantial majorities of the public and the Native American community do not find the name offensive. A 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll found that 90 percent of Native Americans said the name didn’t bother them. Instead, the board focused on a 1993 resolution adopted by the National Congress of American Indians denouncing the name. The board simply extrapolated that, since the National Congress represented about 30 percent of Native Americans, one out of every three Native Americans found it offensive. “Thirty percent is without doubt a substantial composite,” the board wrote.
Politicians rejoiced in the government intervention, which had an immediate symbolic impact. As Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said Wednesday: “You want to ignore millions of Native Americans? Well, it’s pretty hard to say the federal government doesn’t know what they’re talking about when they say it’s disparaging.”
For the Washington Redskins, there may be years of appeals, and pending a final decision, the trademarks will remain enforceable. But if the ruling stands, it will threaten billions of dollars in merchandizing and sponsorship profits for NFL teams, which share revenue. Redskins owner Dan Snyder would have to yield or slowly succumb to death by a thousand infringement paper cuts.
The patent office opinion also seems to leave the future of trademarks largely dependent on whether groups file challenges. Currently trademarked slogans such as “Uppity Negro” and “You Can’t Make A Housewife Out Of A Whore” could lose their protections, despite the social and political meaning they hold for their creators. We could see organizations struggle to recast themselves so they are less likely to attract the ire of litigious groups — the way Carthage College changed its sports teams’ nickname from Redmen to Red Men and the California State University at Stanislaus Warriors dropped their Native American mascot and logo in favor of the Roman warrior Titus. It appears Fighting Romans are not offensive, but Fighting Sioux are.
As federal agencies have grown in size and scope, they have increasingly viewed their regulatory functions as powers to reward or punish citizens and groups. The Internal Revenue Service offers another good example. Like the patent office, it was created for a relatively narrow function: tax collection. Yet the agency also determines which groups don’t have to pay taxes. Historically, the IRS adopted a neutral rule that avoided not-for-profit determinations based on the content of organizations’ beliefs and practices. Then, in 1970, came the Bob Jones University case. The IRS withdrew the tax-exempt status from the religious institution because of its rule against interracial dating on campus. The Supreme Court affirmed in 1983 that the IRS could yank tax exemption whenever it decided that an organization is behaving “contrary to established public policy” — whatever that public policy may be. Bob Jones had to choose between financial ruin and conforming its religious practices. It did the latter.
There is an obvious problem when the sanctioning of free exercise of religion or speech becomes a matter of discretionary agency action. And it goes beyond trademarks and taxes. Consider the Federal Election Commission’s claim of authority to sit in judgment of whether a film is a prohibited “electioneering communication.” While the anti-George W. Bush film “Fahrenheit 9/11” was not treated as such in 2004, the anti-Clinton “Hillary: The Movie” was barred by the FEC in 2008. The agency appeared Caesar-like in its approval and disapproval — authority that was curtailed in 2010 by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
Even water has become a vehicle for federal agency overreach. Recently, the Obama administration took punitive agency action against Washington state and Colorado for legalizing marijuana possession and sales. While the administration said it would not enforce criminal drug laws against marijuana growers — gaining points among the increasing number of citizens who support legalization and the right of states to pass such laws — it used a little-known agency, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to cut off water to those farms. The Bureau of Reclamation was created as a neutral supplier of water and a manager of water projects out West, not an agency that would open or close a valve to punish noncompliant states.
When agencies engage in content-based speech regulation, it’s more than the usual issue of “mission creep.” As I’ve written before in these pages, agencies now represent something like a fourth branch in our government — an array of departments and offices that exercise responsibilities once dedicated exclusively to the judicial and legislative branches. Insulated from participatory politics and accountability, these agencies can shape political and social decision-making. To paraphrase Clausewitz, water, taxes and even trademarks appear to have become the continuation of politics by other means.
What is needed is a new law returning these agencies to their core regulatory responsibilities and requiring speech neutrality in enforcement. We do not need faceless federal officials to become arbiters of our social controversies. There are valid objections to the Redskins name, but it is a public controversy that demands a public resolution, not a bureaucratic one.