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The Washington Redskins are celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 19 decision striking down the Patent and Trademark Office’s ban on registering trademarks considered disparaging to racial or ethnic groups ( Matal v. Tam , Lee v. Tam, U.S., No. 15-1293, 6/19/17 ).The Supreme Court said an Asian-American rock band, the Slants, has a free speech right to register its name as a trademark even though it is a racial slur for Asians. Simon Tam, the founder of the Slants, said he chose the name to reclaim the term and take away its power.
The Redskins are fighting efforts by a group of American Indians, including lead plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse, to have its trademarks cancelled on the same grounds. The Supreme Court decision, which didn’t include any exceptions or limits, appears to be a clear-cut victory for the football team.
“The team is thrilled with today’s unanimous decision as it resolves the Redskins’ long-standing dispute with the government,” Lisa Blatt, an attorney for the team and a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, said in an emailed statement. “The Supreme Court vindicated the team’s position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or cancelling a trademark registration based on the government’s opinion.”
The Redskins’ case is currently at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which has been waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Tam case.
Blackhorse and five others petitioned the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) to cancel the trademark registrations of the Washington Redskins in 2014. The board, the PTO’s administrative body for hearing trademark disputes, agreed with the Blackhorse parties, ordering the registration be cancelled. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia also ruled in favor of the Blackhorse parties in 2015 on the same grounds, following the football team’s appeal.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Slants, its ruling may encourage the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to resolve the Redskins trademark dispute sooner rather than later.
“I would expect the Redskins’ counsel to file sometime this week, if not today. Since this is a strong ruling from the Supreme Court, you can see them moving quickly to resolve this case,” Eric Ball, a trademark litigation partner at Fenwick & West, LLP, told Bloomberg BNA.
The group opposing the Redskins trademark registration said they were disappointed with Supreme Court’s decision. The group conceded the decision means the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration will not be cancelled. However, the group was encouraged that the high court’s opinion did not address the team’s name.
“Nothing in the opinion undermines the decisions of the TTAB or the District Court that the term ‘redskin’ disparages Native Americans,” the group said in a written statement.
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