Published June 21, 2017
The Supreme Court’s ruling that a federal trademark law banning offensive names is unconstitutional gives a “reprieve” to the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and other organizations facing legal actions challenging the registration of their “historic, albeit politically insensitive trademarks,” according to UB sports law expert Helen A. Drew.
The Supreme Court decision striking down a 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms because it infringes on free speech rights violated the rights of an Oregon-based, Asian-American rock band called the Slants.
“The Supreme Court found that marks registered by the Patent and Trademark Office do not become government speech,” says Drew, adjunct professor at the School of Law.
“The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the Patent and Trademark Office from denying registration under the First Amendment.”
This ruling puts “a period to a lengthy legal battle over the continuing use of marks such as the Washington Redskins, which are considered offensive by many and have been the subject of considerable debate,” Drew says.
She says it remains to be seen whether the debate will have a similar outcome “in the court of public opinion.”
“The ‘good will’ represented by trademarks ultimately depends upon public support as expressed by the purchase of trademarked products by the general public,” she says. “In the final analysis, the financial success — or failure — of offensive marks remains in the hands of the consumer.”