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onceding what had seemed to have become inevitable, the Justice Department asked a federal appeals court on Wednesday to put an end to the long-running legal fight against the Washington, D.C., pro football team over the use of the trademarks protecting its name, the “Redskins.” That very likely will leave undisturbed the team’s six trademarks, which the government had sought to cancel.
In a brief letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, a staff lawyer with the Justice Department relied on the Supreme Court’s June 19 decision striking down the 1946 provision in trademark law that had led officials to rule that the name was “disparaging” to Native Americans. The legal clause at issue had forbidden the registering of trademarks that had been found offensive to specific persons or groups. That clause, the Justices ruled, violated free-speech rights under the First Amendment.
The new letter said: “The Supreme Court’s decision in Matal v. Tam…controls the disposition of this case. Consistent with Tam, the court should reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Pro-Football” — the formal name of the corporation that owns the team in the Nation’s capital.
The legality of the trademarks had been challenged by a group of Native Americans as a violation of the “disparagement” clause. The federal Patent and Trademark Office agreed with the challenge, and ordered the marks cancelled. That ruling had not gone into effect because the team’s ownership had appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit Court. Last week, that court had asked both sides to react to the Supreme Court’s decision. The team name was not directly at issue in that case, which involved a rock music band that had been denied a trademark for its name, the “Slants,” because of the clause.
The Native Americans who have long fought both legally and in public relations efforts against the team name vowed, after the Supreme Court decision had seemed to doom their legal efforts, that they would continue to try to compel the team to drop the name. The team’s principal owner, Daniel Snyder, has strenuously opposed any change.
Legendary journalist Lyle Denniston is Constitution Daily’s Supreme Court correspondent. Denniston has written for us as a contributor since June 2011 and has covered the Supreme Court since 1958. His work also appears on lyldenlawnews.com.