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In June 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington football team’s trademark, calling it “disparaging to Native Americans.” The victory was short-lived, as the team quickly appealed. Now the Department of Justice is intervening in the case.
The DOJ is not taking a position on the team’s name, defined by Merriam-Webster as “usually offensive,” only on the constitutionality of the federal statute the team is challenging.
In a suit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in August, Pro-Football, Inc., the team’s name for legal purposes, challenged part of the Lanham Act, claiming Section 2 violates the First Amendment. “The Lanham Act permits denial or cancellation of a trademark application if the trademark is disparaging or falsely suggests a connection with persons living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols,” DOJ explains in a release. “The act further provides that if a private party believes that a trademark was improperly registered, the party may commence a review proceeding before the [U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board] seeking to have the trademark canceled.”
“The Department of Justice is dedicated to defending the constitutionality of the important statute ensuring that trademark issues involving disparaging and derogatory language are dealt with fairly,” Joyce R. Branda, acting assistant attorney general for DOJ’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “I believe strongly in the rights of all Americans to celebrate and maintain their unique cultural heritage. Going forward, we will strive to maintain the ability of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to make its own judgment on these matters, based on clear authorities established by law.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called the team’s name “offensive.” President Barack Obama‘s nominee to replace Holder, current United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch, has not publicly taken a stance on the name.
Illustration by Carey Jordan