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Press Release

Justice Department Intervenes in Lawsuit Involving Washington Redskins Trademark

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

Justice Department Will Defend Constitutionality of Trademark Statute

Earlier today, the government filed a notice of intervention in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Amanda Blackhorse, et al. notifying the court in the Eastern District of Virginia that it would defend the federal authorities of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), the Justice Department announced. 

In August 2006, five Native Americans, Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs, Philip Gover, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh, sought the cancellation of six Washington Redskins trademark registrations under the Lanham Act on the grounds that the trademarks were disparaging to Native Americans at the time they were registered.  A panel of the TTAB agreed and issued a June 18, 2014 decision that the registrations should be canceled.

Pro-Football Inc., the owner of the Washington Redskins, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on Aug. 14, 2014, against the five individuals who had petitioned the TTAB for invalidation of the Redskins trademarks.  Pro-Football Inc. is challenging the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) on the grounds that the act violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The Lanham Act permits denial or cancellation of a trademark application if the trademark is disparaging or falsely suggests a connection with persons living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols.  The act further provides that if a private party believes that a trademark was improperly registered, the party may commence a review proceeding before the TTAB seeking to have the trademark canceled.

The United States will defend the constitutionality of the federal statute.

“The Department of Justice is dedicated to defending the constitutionality of the important statute ensuring that trademark issues involving disparaging and derogatory language are dealt with fairly,” said Acting

Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Civil Division.  “I believe strongly in the rights of all Americans to celebrate and maintain their unique cultural heritage.  Going forward, we will strive to maintain the ability of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to make its own judgment on these matters, based on clear authorities established by law.” 

The United States is specifically authorized by federal statute to intervene in any federal action in which the constitutionality of an act of Congress is drawn into question.  Intervention by the United States will not interfere with the timely adjudication of this action.

The case is being handled by the Justice Department’s Civil Division’s Federal Programs Branch with the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Updated January 9, 2015

Press Release Number: 15-025