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DOJ backs Native activists in battle over racist NFL trademarks

The logo for the Change the Mascot campaign

The Department of Justice is intervening in a dispute over the racist trademarks of the Washington NFL team.

In Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc., the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) canceled six of the team's trademarks because they are disparaging to Native people. The ruling prompted the team to sue six young Native activists in federal court in Virginia.

A judge has allowed the case to move forward. But the activists now have the support of the Obama administration as they try to prove that the team's marks disparage Native people and bring them into “contempt or disrepute.”

“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,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda of DOJ's Civil Division said in a press release. “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.”

The team previously sued a different group of Native activists after the TTAB struck down the same marks back in 1999. That case, however, went through the federal court in Washington, D.C.

The judge who handled the case eventually ruled that Suzan Shown Harjo, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November, and her fellow activists waited too long to challenge the trademarks.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, left the door open for a new challenge from people who weren't alive when the trademarks were first registered in 1967. The Blackhorse petitioners represent a new generation of Native activists who oppose the continued use of a racial slur in professional sports.

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Justice Department intervenes in Redskins trademark protection lawsuit (The Washington Post 1/9)

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