Five Native Americans who successfully challenged the name of the Washington Redskins as offensive are asking a Virginia judge to dismiss a lawsuit that the NFL team has filed against them.
Lawyers for both sides were in federal court Friday in Alexandria, Virginia, where Judge Gerald Bruce Lee heard arguments on whether the lawsuit should be thrown out.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) board ruled in June that six trademark registrations on the team's name should be canceled, after a petition filed by Navajo activist Amanda Blackhorse along with Phillip Glover, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh said the team’s name was "disparaging to Native Americans" when registered.
After the board's action, the team sued all five people. The judge on Friday suggested it would be unprecedented to dismiss the team's lawsuit, but said he would issue a written ruling about whether the lawsuit could go forward at a later date.
The team could have challenged the ruling in appellate court in Washington, but sought help instead in a venue that gives it more options, by going to a trial court. If the civil action is allowed to continue, the NFL franchise will be able to introduce new evidence during a court trial in which it will seek an order preventing the USPTO from carrying out its scheduled cancellation of the 'Redskins' trademark.
The team's trademark protection remains in place while the issue makes its way through the courts. If the ruling ultimately stands, the team will still be able to use the name — but it would be harder for the team to go after others who use the name without permission on clothing or other memorabilia.
The team, which has used Redskins as part of its name since 1933, said in court papers that the patent office board was wrong and that its trademarks are proper because the term was not offensive when the trademarks were registered. The team said canceling the trademarks, which were registered between 1967 and 1990, would violate the Constitution.
A lawyer for the Native Americans being sued, Jesse Witten, argued that his clients should be left out of the dispute and that the lawsuit against them should be dismissed. But the Redskins' attorney Robert Raskopf said Blackhorse and the other defendants belong in court because they are the ones who filed the petition that led to the cancellation of the Redskins' trademarks.
Blackhorse said part of her reasoning for filing the petition with the USPTO was an experience she had while attending a Redskins game in 2005.
"These fans were very aggressive and they were very rude and very disrespectful, very racist and hostile, and just because we simply stood there and held a sign saying we don’t agree with Native American mascots," Blackhorse told Al Jazeera. "I also saw the way that they dress — the red face, the feathers. That’s basically mockery of our culture. That opened my eyes to all of this."
Lawyers for the Redskins and the group of Native Americans being sued were not immediately available to comment on the litigation on Friday.
The team’s moniker — deemed deeply offensive by Native American groups — has been the subject of controversy following a drive by activists since early 2013 to force owner Daniel Snyder to change the name. He has so far refused, saying the name and the team's associated imagery represented "respect" and "pride." But opponents say that is not so.
"Definitely the name needs to go and their logo as well. Because the logo perpetuates stereotypes of native people – stoic, fierce, brave," Blackhorse said. "I’m not saying we’re the opposite of that. Those words alone attached to a Native American person are very loaded and there’s a fine line between stereotyping and just saying something positive about a person."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.