ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A federal judge seems to think Native Americans offended by the Washington Redskins team name are properly being sued by the NFL franchise.
Judge Gerald Bruce Lee suggested during a hearing Friday that it would be unprecedented to dismiss the team’s lawsuit against five Native Americans who complained about the name to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
A trademark office board decided in June to cancel some of the Redskins’ trademarks, citing federal regulations against protecting words and images that are disparaging or offensive.
The team could have challenged the ruling in appellate court in Washington, but sought help instead in a venue that gives it more options, by going to a trial court to sue the Native Americans who complained in the first place.
The team has used the Redskins name since 1933, and has asked the judge to reverse the trademark board’s removal of protections of six trademarks the team registered between 1967 and 1990. The team argues that the name is not offensive, and that canceling its trademarks would violate its free speech rights and take its property without compensation.
A lawyer for the Native Americans, Jesse Witten, argued that his clients should be left out of the dispute and that the lawsuit against them should be dismissed. But team attorney Robert Raskopf said Amanda Blackhorse and the other defendants belong in court because they’re the ones who filed the petition.
The judge seemed to agree and said he would issue a written ruling at a later date.
The team’s trademark protection remains in place while the issue makes its way through the court system, and the trademark board’s ruling does not apply to the team’s current logo, which includes an American Indian head in profile.
Activists have demanded for decades that the Redskins change their name, but the “Change the Mascot” campaign has heated up this election year. Politicians have weighed in on both sides, and the Oneida Indian Nation in New York is bankrolling a P.R. campaign, including radio ads that are playing in Minnesota this weekend before the team’s game against the Vikings.
Team owner Dan Snyder says he’ll never change the name. Just losing trademark protections under the current ruling could cost the team tens of millions of dollars per year.