Amanda Blackhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, has been leading the fight against the Washington NFL team's racist mascots. Photo by Shaida Tabrizi / Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune
Law | National | Sports

Supreme Court accepts case linked to NFL team's racist mascot





The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could help the Washington NFL team defend its racist trademarks.

In an order on Monday, the justices granted a petition in Lee v. Tam, a closely-watched dispute between a musical group known as The Slants and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Washington team is not a party to the case but believes the outcome will have a direct impact on its battle against Native youth activists.

At issue is the constitutionality of the Lanham Act, a federal law that prohibits the registration of symbols that "disparage" people or bring them into "contempt" or "disrepute." The Patent and Trademark Office cited the law in refusing to register a trademark for The Slants and in canceling the trademarks for the NFL team.

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, however, invalidated a criticial portion of the Lanham Act as part of a lawsuit filed by The Slants. That decision will now be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

A band from Oregon called The Slants won a significant decision in federal court that the Washington NFL team hopes will protects its racist trademarks. Photo: Facebook

The NFL team filed an amicus brief that urged the justices to hear The Slants case, but also filed a separate petition in its own case, known as Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse. The petition asked the Supreme Court to hear its lawsuit even before 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has a chance to rule on the matter.

The Supreme Court has not yet announced whether it will accept or decline that petition but an answer could be coming shortly because the it was considered at a conference on September 26, the same day Lee v. Tam was reviewed.

The Blackhorse case originated with six young Native activists who convinced the Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the NFL team's racist trademarks because they are disparaging to Native people. The team challenged the ruling in court but a federal judge in Virginia sided with the youth in a July 2015 decision.

"The record contains several dictionaries defining 'redskins' as a term referring to North American Indians and characterizing 'redskins' as offensive or contemptuous," Judge Gerald Bruce Lee wrote at the time. He also rejected the team's request to undermine the Lanham Act.

Suzan Shown Harjo, shown here at the September 21, 2004, opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., has been at the forefront of the battle to eliminate harmful stereotypes. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The team subsequently appealed to the 4th Circuit, which hears cases from Virginia. Oral arguments have tentatively been scheduled in Richmond, the state capitol, for the second week of December, according to an order from the court.

The case is being closely watched across Indian Country. The Navajo Nation, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the United South and Eastern Tribes and dozens of Indian organizations and Native student groups have filed briefs in support of the Native youth.

The team's decision to pursue the case in Virginia was extremely strategic. An earlier version of the dispute that was led by Suzan Shown Harjo, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and other Native activists was previously heard by the federal court system in Washington, D.C.

Although the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled against the activists on a technical issue, the team chose a different venue to fight the Native youth. The federal court in Virginia and the 4th Circuit almost never hear cases involving Indian interests whereas the federal courts in D.C. do so on a regular basis.

Additionally, the team had the option of going directly to the 4th Circuit but chose to prolong the dispute by asking a federal judge to hear the Blackhorse case. The team employed the same tactic in Harjo's case even as it claimed that delays harm its $2.95 billion enterprise.

Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
In Re Simon Shiao Tam (December 22, 2015)

Related Stories:
Supreme Court weighs petition in case tied to racist NFL mascot (09/20)
Kiowa player Kendal Thompson lands spot on Washington NFL team's practice squad (09/05)
White House official hires attorney as powwow fight story heats up (08/19)
White House official got into fight at powwow over offensive jersey (08/10)
Football player from Kiowa Tribe not bothered by NFL team's name (08/09)
Unofficial NFL team mascot 'Chief Zee' passes away at age 75 (07/20)
Editorial: Washington school bans NFL team's apparel on campus (06/22)
Amanda Blackhorse: Mascot opponents won't stop despite poll (06/02)
William Ledford: Native support for racist mascot is news to me (06/02)
Peter d'Errico: Mascot poll reflects realities of historical genocide (6/1)
Courtland Milloy: Let's celebrate NFL team's truly offensive past (6/1)
Harlan McKosato: Let's conduct new poll on the racist NFL mascot (5/31)
Raymond Foxworth: Tribal opposition to racist names still matters (5/31)
Jacqueline Keeler: Shameful and skewed poll on racist NFL name (05/26)
Billy Mills: Flawed poll can't justify use of team's racist mascot (5/24)
Richard King: Mascot poll reflects pervasive anti-Indian racism (5/24)
Tara Houska: Mascots hurt Native youth despite results of poll (5/23)
Vincent Schilling: Mascot poll doesn't reflect true Indian voices (5/23)
Washington Post conducts poll on Native views of racist mascot (5/20)
Room for Debate: Trademarks for racist and disparaging names (05/04)
Amanda Blackhorse to deliver Haskell University commencement keynote (04/27)
Washington team asks Supreme Court to hear trademark appeal (4/26)
Original Americans Foundation discloses $3.7M in gifts to tribes (01/15)
Washington mayor courts NFL team but won't use racist name (01/14)
Gregg Easterbrook: Fans shout racial slur on national television (12/08)
Carla Fredericks: Racial slur tied to Sand Creek Massacre (11/16)
Judith LeBlanc: Racial slurs have no place in our society (11/13)
Mary Pember: A confusing and disappointing mascot exhibit (11/11)
Obama takes aim at racist mascots and harmful stereotypes (11/6)
Transcript: President Obama at Tribal Nations Conference (11/6)
Adidas launches effort to help schools with Indian mascots (11/5)
James Giago Davies: Why the R-word controversy won't die (11/04)
Wenona Singel: Racist mascot found at schools in many states (10/16)
New book provides insight into owner of Washington NFL team (10/15)
Tara Houska: A symbol of racism lives on in our nation's capital (10/13)
Editorial: Another loss for Washington NFL team's racist mascot (10/13)
California governor signs bill to outlaw racist mascot in schools (10/12)
Donald Trump doesn't think NFL team's racist mascot should go (10/06)
Republican Jeb Bush defends racist name of Washington NFL team (10/1)
Indian National Finals Rodeo requested $527K from NFL team (09/17)
Harlan McKosato: Another season to fight team's racist mascot (09/14)
Eastern Cherokees disavow any ties to Washington NFL team (09/11)
Indian National Finals Rodeo won't take money from NFL team (09/10)
DC council member doesn't want racist name tied to stadium deal (08/26)
NFL team won't give up racist name in exchange for stadium (08/18)
TV show set in future comes up with new name for NFL team (08/07)
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe rejects $25K check from NFL team (8/5)
Native Sun News Editorial: No honor in being called 'Redskin' (07/23)
Virginia governor seems less interested in hosting NFL team (07/22)
Washington NFL team plans to appeal decision in trademark case (07/09)
Judge backs Native youth in battle over NFL team's racist mascot (07/08)