On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a rock band — and its ruling could help legally settle the fight over the name “Redskins.”
An Asian group calling itself “The Slants” had sought for years to trademark its name and by doing so, directly attack the derogatory use of the word as an insult.
Federal licensing officials refused to issue that trademark, saying the name was disparaging and violated trademark regulations that date back to the 1940s.
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled The Slants had a First Amendment right to call themselves essentially whatever they want, and it ruled the 1940s trademark limitation unconstitutional.
Justice Samuel Alito said in the court ruling that the federal restriction “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”
Band founder Simon Tam said the band name was an attempt to neutralize the word.
“The notion of having slanted eyes was always considered a negative thing,” Tam said in January when oral arguments were heard in the case, according to National Public Radio. “Kids would pull their eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture to make fun of us. ... I wanted to change it to something that was powerful, something that was considered beautiful or a point of pride instead.”
Now after this ruling from a court of law, only the court of public opinion will decide whether The Slants will succeed.
The Washington Redskins team has fought an increasingly loud battle over the team name and its meaning. While team owner Dan Snyder and supporters say the team proudly honors the fighting spirit and determination of American Indians, opponents say the name is a historic slur and refers to the discrimination and even scalping of American Indians for profit.
The federal Patent and Trademark office canceled the “Redskins” trademark in 2014 after decades of its use. The team has fought back in court in a case that’s now pending in federal court in Richmond. Expert court watchers say there’s little chance the team will lose given the sweeping opinion from Monday’s Supreme Court ruling.
Team owner Dan Snyder declined an NBC News interview request on Monday, but issued a simple statement: “I’m THRILLED. Hail to the Redskins.”
The public relations battle over the name took an earlier hit last year when The Washington Post published a survey that said nine out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the Redskins name. The survey in May 2016 covered 504 people in every state and in the District. It was similar to a poll done in 2004 and was “broadly consistent” across age, income, education, political party and proximity to reservations, The Post reported.
So, now what?
The legal ruling may help clear some of the opposition to the team returning to the District and the team paying for a new $1 billion stadium on the site of the old RFK. The team’s lease in Prince George’s County expires in 2027. It will take several years to gain federal approval and local permits and years more to build a new stadium.
The team is also looking in Virginia and another site in Prince George’s, but no site matches the history and drama associated with RFK Memorial Stadium. Intense opposition from neighborhoods around RFK could be a hurdle unless any new plan guarantees the family recreation and retail opportunities the neighbors want.
Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans — a longtime advocate for the team returning to Washington — says the District can provide extensive amenities to the adjacent neighborhoods and that the team could anchor development that benefits the whole city.
“The name should not be a sticking point in getting the team here,” Evans told NBC4 on Monday. “Whether the name stays the Redskins or gets changed is up to the owner of the team.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who opposes the team name, did not rule out negotiating a team return, but told NBC4, “whether the team name is constitutional or not doesn’t change whether it’s appropriate.”
■ Folklife Festival returns. Pack the sunscreen and grab a bottle of water or two. The popular event returns for two long weekends: June 29 through July 4 and July 6 through 9.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the festival, which this year will highlight circus arts, migrations of people across and around America, and iconic items that tell the story of 50 years of Folklife gatherings.
And more good news: The National Mall grass has been reseeded. The festival will return to its spot from 7th to 12th streets. Enjoy. It’s one of your Notebook’s favorite events.
■ A final word. We’ll have more to say in future Notebooks, but we join others in mourning the death last week of former Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham. He was best known on the council for supporting the homeless, the struggling tenants in a growing city and the need to keep Metrobus fares affordable for hardworking families.
Prior to joining the council, Graham for nearly 17 years ran the Whitman-Walker Health clinic that was an early leader in the care and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Although Graham late in his career was reprimanded for mishandling government contracts involved with Metro development, his long career reflected far more good than bad. Our condolences are offered to his wide array of friends and to those who only knew him by his work.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.