What's in a name?: 'Redskins' trademark canceled by federal judge

A second federal court has ordered the cancellation of the Washington Redskins' national trademark registrations.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
The Washington logo is seen on the field before an NFL football preseason game, Aug. 7, 2014.

The Washington Redskins, a National Football League team notorious for its efforts to safeguard its controversial name, suffered another major loss against the Native American community.

In a June 2014 court decision, the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled six Washington Redskins trademarks, saying that the logo was "disparaging to Native Americans."  But NBC Washington reported that the ruling didn’t require the Washington team to change their name, it only changed their trademark agreement.

The team sued the Native American activists in federal court, looking to overturn the decision, but US District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee affirmed the previous ruling, citing the Lanham Act’s requirement that trademarks be withheld if they "disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute."

In September 2013, National Public Radio spoke with Smithsonian historian Ives Goddard about the origin of the word “redskin.” They reported his findings: 

…early historical records indicate that “Redskin” was used as a self-identifier by Native Americans to differentiate between the two races. Goddard found that the first use of the word “redskin” came in 1769, in negotiations between the Piankashaws and Col. John Wilkins. Throughout the 1800s, the word was frequently used by the Native Americans as they negotiated with the French and later the Americans.

But two centuries later, Merriam-Webster notes that the term is "usually offensive," and dictionary.com describes it as "disparaging and offensive."

In a 2013 article in Slate Magazine, former Native American plaintiff Suzanne Harjo said the word "redskin" originated in "the practice of presenting bloody red skins and scalps as proof of Indian kill for bounty payments."

Whatever the word's origins, the football team argues that a removal of their trademark ownership now violates their First Amendment rights.

After last year's PTO ruling, the team’s trademark attorney Bob Raskopf said, “We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.”

He cited a 2003 court ruling that described the Native Americans' argument as “unsupported by substantial evidence” and “logically flawed.”

In the wake of not one but two court decisions in favor of the Native American plaintiffs, the team will probably appeal, all the way to the US Supreme Court if they choose to.

Team owner Daniel Snyder has repeatedly insisted on his right to the name, telling USA TODAY in 2013, "We will never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps."

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