It looks as if the United States Supreme Court may very well decide the fate of the NFL’s Washington Redskins brand, albeit indirectly. On Thursday, the highest court in the land announced that they will hear arguments in Lee v. Tam, a case dealing with whether or not the First Amendment allows for the filing of trademarks that “may disparage” some people. The Redskins’ trademark was cancelled in 2014 for disparaging Native Americans, and while the team did sue over the decision, the Supreme Court cannot hear the case yet because a federal appellate court has not yet ruled.
Instead of a professional football team, Lee. vs. Tam deals with a rock band. Tam is Simon Shiao Tam, founder of The Slants. In his brief (PDF), Tam’s lawyers explain that by forming an all-Asian-American band and choosing that name, he “was following in the long tradition of ‘reappropriation,’ in which members of minority groups have reclaimed terms that were once directed at them as insults and turned them outward as badges of pride.” The band was formed in 2006, with Tam trying to trademark the name five years later. He was turned down over the non-disparalgment rule.
While the Redskins case cannot yet proceed to the Supreme Court, the consensus appears to be that Lee v. Tam will settle the issue, anyway. The team had been fighting lawsuits over the name going back to 1992, but the controversy ramped up again a few years ago, putting them on the path to the decision that invalidated various trademarks two years ago.
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