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ACLU asks federal court to reverse cancellation of Redskins trademarks

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief urging Richmond’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the cancellation of the Washington Redskin’s trademarks. The civil rights group has asked for First Amendment right protection for the Redskins team name.

The district court said the ruling did not violate the Redskins First Amendment rights.

“The ACLU agrees that the Washington team’s name and trademarks are disparaging to Native Americans, and we have made clear that we believe that the team should change its name and discontinue use of its current trademarks,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “At the same time, however, we believe that government is prohibited by the First Amendment from denying a trademark on that basis.”

The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute also distributed a press release:

RICHMOND, Va. —The Rutherford Institute has asked a federal appeals court to reject a lower court ruling that confers sweeping power on the government to police private ideas and equates a trademark registration with a form of government-sanctioned speech. Weighing in before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Amanda Blackhorse, et al., attorneys for The Rutherford Institute and The Cato Institute argue that a district court order allowing the government to cancel the federal trademark registration of the NFL Redskins and refuse registration to other applications it deems “offensive” constitutes blatant content and viewpoint discrimination and imposes a “hecklers veto” on speech that violates the First Amendment’s protection of even unpopular speech.

In a related matter, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed an amicus brief in In re: Simon Shiao Tam, coming to the defense of “The Slants,” an Asian-American dance rock band whose trademark application was denied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on the grounds that the trademark might disparage or offend persons of Asian heritage.

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Amanda Blackhorse.

“Whether the debate is over a trademark for the Slants, the Redskins, or a specialty license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the sticking point remains the same: how much do we really value the First Amendment, and how far are we willing to go to protect someone else’s freedom of speech, even if that speech might be offensive to some?” asked constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The end result remains the same: outright censorship and the creation of a class system that renders speech perceived as politically incorrect, hateful or offensive as inferior and less entitled to the full protection of the law.”

The Redskins have been waging a 20-year battle to protect the football team’s name in the face of charges that it is offensive to Native Americans. In 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board voted to cancel the Redskins’ trademark, declaring it to be offensive to Native Americans and therefore in violation of the Lanham Act, which prohibits names that “may disparage” or bring people into contempt or disrepute. In asserting the team’s First Amendment right to retain its name, the Redskins argued that the team name is a valuable commodity, in which the NFL team has invested millions of dollars for promotions and protections of trademarks. Moreover, the team claims that the Redskins name honors Native Americans rather than disrespecting them. The Redskins brought an action challenging the TTAB’s cancellation of the trademarks in Virginia federal district court, but that court upheld the ruling asserting that cancellation did not violate any First Amendment rights of the Redskins.

In challenging the district court’s ruling, The Rutherford Institute argued that the trademark statute allowing cancellation or denial of registration if a mark “may disparage” a particular group is unconstitutional on its face because it discriminates against speech that a government official or body considers inappropriate or offensive.

Affiliate attorneys Megan L. Brown, Joshua Turner, Christopher Kelly, Jennifer Elgin, and Dwayne D. Sam of Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, D.C., assisted The Rutherford Institute and The Cato Institute in advancing the arguments in the Pro-Football, Inc., brief.