Native Americans tackle ‘Redskins’ in legal arena

Monday, April 20, 1998

Washington's professional football team could lose its “Redskins” trademark if Native American lobbyist Suzan Shown Harjo prevails at a May 27 hearing before administrative judges at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In Harjo v. Pro Football, Inc., Harjo argues that the government should not allow trademarking of a name which, she contends, is highly offensive to Native Americans.

“There's an overriding public policy issue here about whether the federal government is going to support offensiveness,” she told The Washington Post. The federal trademark law — the Lanham Act — specifies that disparaging terms may not be trademarked, she argues.

But Robert Raskopf, attorney for the Washington Redskins, says that “the government should not be regulating speech that is offensive to some people and not to others. The trademark in question here is fully protected commercial speech. It is simply not the business of the government to intervene and de-list a mark that has been in existence for years and years.”

“We've been litigating this claim for over five years now,” he said. “First of all, we don't think the trademark has any of the negative connotations the petitioners say it does. We believe this is a political case that has been raised to generate publicity for a certain cause.

“If we are unsuccessful before the trademark board — and we are confident we will prevail — then we will raise the constitutional arguments in another court. This mark is protected by First Amendment free-speech principles.”

Raskopf said that, because the trademark office will not consider the constitutional issues, he will raise those arguments, if necessary, before either a federal district court or the federal appeals court (called the Federal Circuit) that hears patent and trademark cases.

Michael Gartner, editor of The Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa, said: “I would find it incredible if the trademark office would not issue a trademark for that name. I mean, every word is offensive to somebody.”