Let’s be clear. The National Football League team in Washington, D.C., has a lousy nickname. Redskins is offensive and should be changed.
But it should not be up to the federal government to use its power to force that change. The First Amendment makes it clear that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”
Yet, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a case the justices agreed last week to hear, Congress might have that power in a de facto way through the U.S. Office of Patent and Trademark Office.
The justices said they considered whether part of the 1946 Lanham Trademark Act that prohibits registration of a trademark that “may disparage” persons violates the First Amendment in relation to a case out of Portland.
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The lawsuit was filed by rock musician Simon Shiao Tam, whose Asian-American band is known as “The Slants.” He was turned down by the Patent and Trademark Office when he tried to register the band’s trademark in 2011. Trademark officials said the name was likely to disparage a significant number of Asian Americans.
In response, Tam said the intent of the name was to fight bigotry by reclaiming a slur and use it “as a badge of pride.”
Tam did not prevail in lower courts, but a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the 1946 law, which calls for the rejection of trademarks that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute” violates the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision.
The ramifications of a final decision could be far reaching to include the Redskins and other dubious nicknames.
The Washington Redskins, amid a legal battle over its nickname, attempted to weigh in on the Portland case, but the high court did not mention the NFL team in its decision to hear that matter.
The team’s trademark was canceled by the government in 2014 when the team was under public pressure to change the name. The team asked a judge to overturn the cancellation and was refused. The case is now awaiting a hearing in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Ultimately, we would agree that the government does not have the power to determine what is and isn’t acceptable speech. It should be left to the public — through debate, protest and even purchasing decisions — to determine what is acceptable speech.
Given the leader of the Portland band is Asian American, it would seem “Slant” is not a disparaging term in the context it was used.
However, there is no reasonable argument to retain the slur Redskins as a mascot. Whichever way the court rules, that moniker needs to be changed.