The Trump administration is throwing in the towel in the fight to strip the Washington Redskins football team of its trademarks.
The Justice Department sent a letter to a federal appeals court Wednesday afternoon conceding that a Supreme Court decision last week in favor of an Asian-American band calling itself "The Slants" means that the NFL’s Redskins will prevail in the battle over efforts to cancel the team’s trademarks on the grounds that the name is disparaging to Native Americans.
"The Supreme Court’s decision in Matal v. Tam [the Slants’ case] controls the disposition of this case," Justice Department Civil Division attorney Mark Freeman wrote in the letter to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. "Consistent with Tam, the Court should reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Pro-Football."
On June 19, the Supreme Court ruled, 8-0, in favor of the Slants’ front man Simon Tam. He sued after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused to register the band’s name. Patent and Trademark officials cited a legal provision that bans trademarks that "disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute."
Tam maintained there was no such intent in the use of the name, but the government said that didn’t matter.
Soon after the high court ruling last week, a lawyer for the Redskins said the decision meant sure victory for the team in the legal dispute.
In 2014, a federal trademark appeal board voted to cancel the National Football League team’s trademarks on the grounds they were disparaging to those of Native American origin. A federal district court judge backed that decision the following year. The issue was on appeal to the 4th Circuit when the Supreme Court decided to hear the Slants case.
The Slants case was argued by the Justice Department in January, two days before President Donald Trump was sworn in. The lawyer defending the anti-disparagement law got a hostile reception from justices at various points on the ideological spectrum.
It’s unclear whether officials at Trump’s Justice Department would have defended the provision or conceded its unconstitutionality.
Stripping the Redskins team of its trademarks would not have prevented the team — which has had the nickname since it was in Boston in 1933 — from using that name or related symbols, but might have hurt the team’s merchandising revenues.