WASHINGTON FOOTBALL team owner Daniel Snyder has won his fight with the federal trademark office to retain patent protection for the team’s name. But before he takes another victory lap, Mr. Snyder would do well to reflect on what exactly it is that he has “won.” The team’s name is still as hurtful and offensive as ever, and the controversy it stirs will likely only intensify, not go away. So pardon us for not offering our congratulations.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision affirming core free-speech principles in a case brought by an Asian American band calling itself the Slants, the Justice Department last week moved to end the football team’s case. It sent a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that moved for dismissal with a judgment in favor of the team. The suit stemmed from the 2014 decision of a federal trademark appeal board to cancel the National Football League team’s trademark registrations on the grounds that they were disparaging of Native Americans and, as such, ran afoul of 70-year-old federal law prohibiting registration of trademarks likely to disparage people or groups.
The same citation had been used by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office when it refused in 2011 to allow the Slants to register its name, a decision the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in a unanimous ruling June 19. The court was right to affirm the bedrock principle of the First Amendment. So precious is the right to free speech that even that which is hateful or offensive must be protected.
So, yes, Mr. Snyder can call his football team anything he wants without fear of losing the valuable trademark protection that is key to merchandising revenue. But just because the First Amendment gives him the right to use a racial slur, that doesn’t mean he should. Why would he even want to? We understand the affection Mr. Snyder and some team fans espouse for the history embodied in the name, and we have never thought there is racist intent when fans hail the team’s name. None of that, though, changes the inescapable fact that the name is one that no one with any real sense of decency would ever think to call a Native American to his or her face. It is degrading. It does real harm, particularly in psychological damage to Native American children and teens. It should be changed — and then congratulations will be in order.
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