Redskin n. slang (often disparaging and offensive). a north American Indian. Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1618 (2d Ed. 1987).
In a monumental decision, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has cancelled several trademark registrations of the Washington Redskins national football league team, on the grounds that the term “redskins” is disparaging to Native Americans.
The case, Amanda Blackhorse, et al. v. Pro-Football, Inc., which was brought on behalf of five Native Americans, sought cancellation of numerous trademark registrations for the marks Washington Redskins®, The Redskins®, and Redskinettes®, pursuant to Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act, which bars the registration of a trademark that “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt…”
The Evidence in Support of Cancellation
In concluding that the term “redskin” is disparaging to Native Americans so as to order cancellation of the trademarks, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board carefully analyzed the testimony and supporting evidence surrounding the derivation of the term “redskins” as well as the perception among Native Americans as to the term and whether they found it to be offensive. The evidence, which was voluminous and consisted of evidence and trial testimony from a previously litigated case on the same issues, included dictionary entries, media reports and a survey that all weighed heavily in favor of disparagement. Also submitted into evidence was a 1993 resolution passed by the National Congress of American Indians, (“NCAI”) that specifically condemned use of the “redskins” by the NFL team, and sought cancellation of all of the team’s trademarks that contained the offensive term. The NCAI resolution was found to be highly probative, since the NCAI represents a large composite of the Native American population in the United States and their perception of the term “redskin” as being that of a racial slur and/or highly offensive to individuals of Native American heritage.
Based on a totality of the evidence, the Board, in a 2-1 decision, issued an order cancelling all of the trademark registrations at issue, stating in part:
We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.
The NFL and Washington Redskins are expected to appeal the case in the U.S. federal courts.
Legal Note: The decision does not prevent the Washington Redskins from continuing to use the trademarks in commerce. This is because the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal’s Board jurisdiction is limited to trademark registration issues only; as such, it does not have the statutory authority to order parties to cease using trademarks in association with the sale of goods and services.