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Sports law expert calls trademark decision ‘reprieve’ for Redskins, Indians

The Supreme Courts ruling may represent a "repreive" teams like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, but it remains to be seen whether the debate will have a similar outcome in the court of public opinion, says Helen Drew.

Release Date: June 20, 2017

“In the final analysis, the financial success – or failure – of offensive marks remains in the hands of the consumer.”
Helen Drew, adjunct professor of law
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO. N.Y. – The Supreme Court’s ruling that a federal trademark law banning offensive names is unconstitutional gives a “reprieve” to the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and other organizations facing legal actions challenging the registration of their “historic, albeit politically insensitive, trademarks.”

The Supreme Court decision striking down a 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms because it infringes on free speech rights violated the rights of an Oregon-based, Asian-American rock band called the Slants.

“The Supreme Court found that marks registered by the Patent and Trademark Office do not become government speech,” says Helen A. Drew, a sports law expert and adjunct professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

“The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the Patent & Trademark Office from denying registration under the First Amendment.”

This ruling puts “a period to a lengthy legal battle over the continuing use of marks such as the Washington Redskins, which are considered offensive by many and have been the subject of considerable debate,” according to Drew.

Drew says it remains to be seen whether the debate will have a similar outcome “in the court of public opinion.”

“The ‘good will’ represented by trademarks ultimately depends upon public support as expressed by the purchase of trademarked products by the general public,” says Drew. “In the final analysis, the financial success – or failure – of offensive marks remains in the hands of the consumer.”

Drew, who is frequently quoted in regional and national media on sports law issues, including concussions, drug testing and discipline of professional athletes, is available for interviews on request.

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