“Redskins” Trademarks Axed, Ruling Threatens Broadcasters

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 18, 2014):  The U.S. Patent and Trademark office has cancelled all of the “Redskins” trademark registrations, a move which not only pressures  the team to change its name, but will also make it easier for former commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] to use federal broadcast law to attack the continued use of the team’s disparaging name.

Trademark cancellation a major victory for those fighting the continued use of the racist ‘Redskins’ name

“Although this is a major victory for those fighting the continued use of the racist ‘Redskins’ name, it is by no means conclusive, since a similar cancellation of trademarks by the Trademark Office also occurred in 1999, only to be reversed ten years later after a long court battle,” notes public interest law professor John Banzhaf. That’s why it’s so important to move forward with legal actions aimed at preventing the continued use of the racist word on the air, especially during prime time when so many children are exposed to it.

Recently, the Washington Post called an approach to the “Redskins” problem which utilized federal broadcasting law one which is “potentially more significant than any lawsuit or legislation” because it makes use of the legal obligations which TV and radio stations must meet to retain their broadcasting licenses.

By law, stations and their programming must serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Also, between 6 AM and 10 PM, radio and TV stations may not use profane language, “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” Thus a finding by another federal agency that the word “may disparage” individuals or groups or “bring them into contempt or disrepute” strengthens this argument, says Banzhaf.

Stations found by the FCC to be in violation may be fined, or find that their very valuable license to broadcast on a given frequency may not be renewed.

Redskins termed as “unequivocal racial slur”

In a letter, former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and many other former FCC commissioners and staffers termed the R-word an “unequivocal racial slur” akin to the N-word.

They liken the use of “Redskins” to an “obscenity” which is illegal on the airwaves, rather than simply an “indecency” which, like profanity, cannot be broadcast between 6 AM and 10 PM.

That  letter also likened the use of the term to “obscene pornographic language on live television.”  Hundt also wrote in a related editorial that: “As chairman of the FCC, I prosecuted a case against Howard Stern for violating indecency rules.”

If the FCC does not act on its own, it could be prodded or even required by law to become involved in the dispute, says Banzhaf.

Banzhaf, the “Man Behind the Ban on Cigarette Commercials,” was the first to suggest using federal broadcasting law as a powerful weapon against the unnecessary use of the word “Redskins” on the air, and is working towards formulating a legal challenge under broadcast law.


Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

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