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Supreme Court ruling won’t stop Native American effort on mascot names

Author: Tom Ramstack - June 24, 2017 - Updated: June 24, 2017

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In this Sept. 18, 2016 file photo, a Washington Redskins helmet is seen on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Landover, Md. The Supreme Court on Monday, June 19, 2017, struck down part of a law that bans offensive trademarks in a ruling that is expected to help the Washington Redskins in their legal fight over the team name. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

The head of Colorado’s program to avoid sports team names that offend Native Americans is pledging to continue his effort despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week that gives them legal protection.

The Supreme Court said names that might be considered insulting by some ethnic groups can be trademarked as a matter of First Amendment free speech.

However, Ernest House, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, said the ruling did not end the debate on whether Colorado schools should use mascots that evoke ethnic images.

“I think the process and conversation that was created by the Governor’s Commission to Study American Indian Representations in Public Schools will continue,” House told Colorado Politics.

The Supreme Court ruled that an Asian-American rock band called “The Slants” has a right to a trademark for its name.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had denied the band a trademark, saying it disparages Asians.

A trademark is a sign, design or expression that identifies the brand owner of a product or service. It is considered property that the owner can license to other persons to collect income.

Federal law grants an exception to trademark rights if the names or images are “disparaging,” or insulting, to other persons or groups.

The case of The Slants was closely watched in the entertainment industry because of its implications for professional sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins football team. If The Slants had lost their case, the Washington Redskins would either be forced to change their team name or lose millions of dollars a year in commercial licensing revenue.

The ruling this week allows the Washington Redskins, along with the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and others, to keep both their names and their trademark revenue.

“I am disappointed by the Supreme Court ruling but also recognize the awareness and attention the case has brought to the American Indian community and the issue of American Indian mascots,” House said. “I believe it also emphasizes our state approach, which brings into account the need for further awareness and education about American Indians and our history in Colorado.”

More than 30 Colorado schools use Native American mascot images and names for their sports teams.

A state General Assembly bill in 2015 sought to require schools to ask permission from tribes to use Native American mascots or names. It failed to win enough votes for approval.

If the bill had passed, schools could have been heavily fined for offending Native Americans with their names or mascots.

Afterward, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs tried again to confront the controversy by organizing the Commission to Study American Indian Representations in Public Schools (CSAIRPS). The Commission seeks partnerships between tribes and the schools that use their names or images.

Colorado schools do not need trademarks for their team names. However, they sometimes endure complaints similar to professional sports teams like the Redskins, the Chiefs and the Braves.

“At this time, we’re focused on working with these schools and don’t see that changing,” House said.

One of the schools that resolved complaints was Strasburg High School, where administrators asked Northern Arapaho Indian Nation leaders to help them design an “Indians” logo and mascot respectful of their heritage.

The cooperation ended earlier accusations of an ethnic insult.

“Asking schools to respect and honor American Indian culture and identity through community conversations is a great start to building that relationship,” House said.

Team names in Colorado that use Native American mascots include the Savages, the Warriors, the Redskins, the Indians and the Comanches.

Other Colorado schools resolved complaints by changing their names.

Colorado State University – Pueblo, formerly the University of Southern Colorado, changed its team name from the Indians to the Thunderwolves in 1995. Adams State College in Alamosa changed its mascot from the Indians to the Grizzlies in 1996.

In the case of The Slants’ Supreme Court case, Justice Department attorneys argued that the 1946 Lanham Act allows the Patent and Trademark Office to deny trademarks “containing crude references to women based on part of their anatomy; the most repellent racial slurs and white supremacist slogans; and demeaning illustrations of the prophet Mohammed and other religious figures.”

The majority opinion of the Supreme Court written by Justice Samuel Alito described the Justice Department’s interpretation of trademark restrictions as too broad.

“It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” Alito wrote.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack