Judge: Insufficient evidence name is offensive
WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has overturned a ruling that canceled the Washington Redskins trademark, finding there was insufficient evidence to conclude the name is disparaging to American Indians.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said a 1999 decision by a panel of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office relied on flawed or incomplete data when it found the NFL team's name so offensive it should not be given legal protection. But she also made clear that her ruling does not address the issue of whether the name "Redskins" actually is insulting to Indians.
The case pits one of the NFL's oldest and wealthiest franchises against seven American Indian activists, led by Suzan Shown Harjo of Washington, who claim the team's name and feather-wearing mascot disparage Indian heritage and tradition.
Team officials say the name is meant to honor American Indians. Pro-Football Inc., the company that owns the Redskins, said it would face massive financial losses if it lost the exclusivity of the brand it had marketed for 36 years.
"We are pleased with the judge's finding," team owner Dan Snyder said Wednesday. "This team has always treated its name and trademarks with the utmost respect and our fans worldwide understand and acknowledge the tradition of the Washington Redskins."
Michael Lindsay, a lawyer for Harjo and the other petitioners, said his clients would consider an appeal.
"We are disappointed in the ruling, and the struggle continues," he said.
If the team had lost, it could have been stripped of the exclusive rights to market the Redskins name and sell team merchandise worth millions. Harjo has said she hoped a victory might lead Snyder to change the team's name. He had pledged not to regardless of the outcome.
The Washington franchise originally was located in Boston and was called the Braves until it was purchased by George Preston Marshall in 1932. He changed the name to the Boston Redskins in honor of the team's head coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, who was an American Indian. The team moved to Washington in 1937 and was renamed the Washington Redskins.
The lawsuit began in 1992 when Harjo asked the trademark office to cancel six Redskin trademarks under the federal Lanham Act, which prohibits registering names if they are "disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable." The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed to cancel the trademark. Its decision did not take effect pending appeal.
In her decision issued late Tuesday, Kollar-Kotelly criticized the trademark board for improperly relying on testimony of several experts on language who had differing opinions about whether the name was disparaging.
She also chastised the board for basing its decision in part on a 1996 survey of about 300 American Indians that showed a majority found the term "redskin" offensive. She said the board erred in extrapolating the results of that survey to the American Indian population as a whole.
"The board premised its disparagement conclusion on a paucity of actual findings of fact that were linked together through inferential arguments that had no basis in the record," Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
"There is no evidence in the record that addresses whether the use of the term "redskin(s)" in the context of a football team and related entertainment services would be viewed by a substantial composite of Native Americans, in the relevant time frame, as disparaging," she wrote.
Kollar-Kotelly also found that the activists waited too long to make their claims - 25 years after the Redskins first registered their trademarks.
"In 1967, the NFL was still a nascent industry," she wrote. "Had this suit been brought at that point, Pro-Football may have acquiesced and changed the name. The 25-year delay, where Pro-Football has invested so heavily in the marks, has clearly resulted in economic prejudice."
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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