ACLU Supports the Washington Redskins Trademark

Although the team has decades of history, many people find the name of the Washington professional football team offensive. The Trademark Office sided with this opinion when it canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration last summer. The Office cited federal trademark law’s prohibition on the registration of disparaging marks. In spite of this latest obstacle, however, the Redskins are fighting this ruling tooth and nail, and they now have a new supporter in their corner.

This trademark story goes back to the early 1970s. The Redskins filed trademark applications in 1972 and were granted trademark registration on the team name. Attitudes toward minority groups at that time were not what they are today and the mark moved through the Trademark Office without issue, despite language in federal trademark law that prohibits the registration of disparaging marks. With a trademark registration and the presumed blessing of the government, the Redskins promoted their brand and became one of the NFL’s most recognizable franchises.

Not all were happy with the team’s name however and the disparaging language clause was called upon to challenge the Redskins’ trademark registration in the early 1990s. A group of Native American’s challenged the mark but ultimately lost on a technicality. A second group of Native Americans recently challenged the trademark registration and this time was victorious. The Trademark Office canceled the Redskins’ trademark registration, but the fight has drawn on as the Redskins have appealed the ruling.

The Redskins are not alone in their fight to maintain their trademark registration. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief opposing viewpoint-based regulation of trademarks and offered its support of the Redskins’ right to free speech. The ACLU’s brief stated that although it believes the Redskins’ name is offensive and should be changed, it shouldn’t be up to the government to make that determination. The ACLU suggests that the language in the Lanham Act restricting immoral, scandalous, or disparaging marks should be removed and there should be no place for the government to use viewpoint-based discrimination in determining which marks should receive trademark registration and which should not.

The Redskins’ trademark registration has been controversial for several decades now. If, and when this case is ever decided it will inform whether the government has a right to deem which trademark applications are offensive and not worthy of trademark registration. A lot of money is at stake here for one of the NFL’s most recognizable brands and this decision will set a precedent on whether the government can get involved in censoring trademark registrations.


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