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Supreme Court First Amendment case could affect local and national team name debates

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) (L) and National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby are pushing to rename Washington’s football team. (Getty)

A Supreme Court First Amendment decision made headlines on June 19 when the court ruled in favor of the Asian-American band The Slants and stated that the First Amendment protects trademarks that could be seen as offensive.

The case drew national attention because of the effect that the decision could have on the Washington Redskins – an organization that has been under scrutiny for using a name that some believe is offensive to the Native American community. The Court’s ruling suggests that Native American logos, trademarks and images, including the highly debated Washington team logo, would be protected under the First Amendment.

Just after the Supreme Court released its opinion, Redskins owner Dan Snyder released a statement expressing his excitement about the result, saying he was “thrilled” the court ruled in a way that would likely allow him to keep the Redskins’ trademark. The team’s attorney also sent a longer message with more details on Washington’s support of the ruling.


The decision, however, has not received universal support, particularly from some in the Native American community.

“It’s important to recognize what the ruling was. If you need a court to issue a ruling protecting hate speech to protect your name, it’s a sign that you should change the name,” Joel Barkin, Oneida Indian Nation tribe vice president of communications, told Yahoo Sports. “What was decided is that hate speech, racial slurs are able to receive patent protection, not that it is appropriate to use said slurs to market and promote as your team name.”

In May 2016, the Washington Post published a survey showing that of 504 Native Americans polled across 50 states, only 9 percent found the name “Redskins” offensive.

Opponents, however, have spoken out against the poll, identifying parts of the poll that they believe skew the results. For example, over half of the respondents were over the age of 50, and less than 20 percent were under the age of 29. The age categories cause some, such as Barkin, to point out a generational gap.

“When we’ve done polls and research, what comes out clearly is young people understand this issue,” Barkin said. “Education and providing this forum to have this debate for our future generation is really what this is about.”

Barkin noted that the controversy surrounding the Washington team name has helped “people to engage in dialogue related to race and racial justice issues,” but he stressed that he believes Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should take a stand against the “racial slur.”  

“Even if the ruling came out opposite, the decision to change the team name was never going to be changed by a court ruling, it was going to be changed by the NFL and the owner,” Barkin said. “More and more the NFL commissioner and Dan Snyder are choosing to be on the wrong side of history.”

Adrienne Keene, a professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and a member of the Cherokee Nation, agrees, and she believes that the court decision should not mean that Native American names are acceptable. She said that when the court ruled against the NFL team’s name three years ago, the decision “made it really clear that the name is disparaging to native people.”

The Redskins have had an ongoing legal battle for the name and lost another fight in 2015 when a federal judge ruled the name too offensive to continue to be protected as a trademark. The team appealed the decision, but the the federal appeals court waited for the result of The Slants’ case before proceeding with the Washington case.

Now that the court ruled opposite to the 2014 and 2015 decisions in The Slants’ case, the questions and arguments for the team name have returned. But Keene remains committed to raising awareness about the problem with such mascots, logos and team names.

Keene has been writing about issues of native representation on her blog, Native Appropriationssince 2010, and she believes Native American recognition has been a constant challenge throughout history.  

“The hard thing for native people is that it doesn’t matter who is in the White House, clearly what is going on now is a new level of things, but there have been good and bad times,” Keene said. “It’s a constant battle to get a colonial government to recognize indigenous people.”

Tradition or Trouble in Tewksbury

The Supreme Court case may also impact a state bill under consideration in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, concerning a high school team’s use of the nickname “Redmen.” The name “Redmen” has been debated for years, but the new bill filed in January reignited and strengthened the debate and aims to ban the name. The bill was filed “by request” via state Sen. Barbara A. L’italien, who proposed the legislation on behalf of Tewksbury resident Linda Thomas and 10 other town residents.

The “by request” process allows any resident of Massachusetts to bring legislation to the state government and ask that their legislators file and serve as the sponsor of the bill. L’Italien submitted the bill requested by Thomas, and the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing for the case on June 6.

If this bill passes, Massachusetts would have to remove all Native American mascots and names from the state. But the New England area would not be the first to institute such an order. Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon have already passed bills either banning or restricting the use of Native American mascots.

Since the hearing, debate on this issue has intensified, particularly after the Supreme Court decision last week. No decision date for the bill has been set, but town members in favor of the nickname and those against the symbol continue to clash.

Keith Sullivan, a longtime resident of Tewksbury and a graduate of Tewksbury Memorial High School, said he opposes the bill and spoke out against changing the logo because he believes that the name is part of the school’s tradition, not a racist nickname designed to target Native Americans.

It means that there is something that is greater than yourself, when we work together we can accomplish so much more as an individual, it binds us,” Sullivan said. “I graduated in 1989, I was very proud, we were state champions, it was a big deal in wrestling.”

Fellow classmate Bob Payne echoed his friend’s sentiments.

“They say that these images are racist and they simply are not racist,” Payne argued. “We’ve always revered our name with honor and respect, and a form of strength and a sense of community.”

The bill would affect approximately 40 schools if passed. Some residents have gone as far as to change their Facebook profile pictures to team logos to show support for the tradition.

Keene, however, said she went to a meeting to speak out against the nickname Redmen, and said she was surprised by the number of attendees in support of changing the mascot. She’s hopeful that the name will be changed, but she recognizes that the debate concerns more than just a conversation about nicknames.

“I think in the case of any of these sort of bills that affect social issues, they have a lot of things to weigh,” Keene said. “It’s shifted from an issue of civil right to the issue of local control.”

Steven Byas, a professor of History and Social Studies at Randall College and a writer for The New American, said he thinks that the questions surrounding the logos and names represents just another cause that people feel the need to fight for as a way of continuing a social justice trend.

“I think you’re going to see efforts continue to be made to attack mascots,” Byas said. “There is some part that society is always looking for a new cause, and I think the biggest thing is we’ve had some horrible things overcome in this country, like racial discrimination and in some cases sexual discrimination, and we’ve overcome so much of those things, and a lot of people are always looking for some new cause.”

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