Government agency calls 'Redskins' offensive

Thursday, January 9, 2014 - 12:18pm

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The heated debate over the Washington Redskins name has now moved beyond living rooms and corporate offices to the U.S. government itself, with one agency making an unequivocal ruling that the term "Redskins" is offensive slang.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected an application to trademark the name "Redskins Hog Rind," writing that the term "Redskins" is "a derogatory slang term that refers to, and is considered offensive by, American Indians."

The agency cited five definitions from online dictionaries -- from The Oxford Dictionary to Yahoo - that labeled the word as offensive or disparaging. In addition the agency pointed to news articles about Native American challenges to the Redskins name, including the policy of the National Congress of American Indians, which officially refers to the team as the "R*dskins" or "R Word".

The Redskins' senior vice president for communications, Tony Wyllie, told CNN the team is not commenting on the decision.

Federal law prohibits trademarking any term that may be immoral, scandalous or may disparage another person. To determine what crosses the line, the agency looks at two questions: 1) the term's likely meaning and use in the product's context and 2) whether the phrase disparages a specific group of people.

Thus, many words have been approved in some circumstances and rejected in others.

The term "squaw," for example, was ruled offensive when used for clothing and general retail but was approved for use with skiing equipment associated with "Squaw Valley." And the PTO rejected the use of "Khoran" for a brand of alcohol, something that the Islamic holy book, the Quran, considers sinful. Actor Damon Wayans' application for a clothing line called "Nigga" was rejected, as have been several applications to use even the phrase "the N word." But a group protesting the phrase was allowed to trademark "Abolish the 'N' word."

Likewise, the agency has permitted the term "redskin" when applied to potatoes or when directly applied to the football team, as in "The Redskins Broadcast Network."

But outside of such contexts, this decision labels the term as offensive.

James Bethel, the man applying for the "Redskins Hog Rind" trademark, can appeal the PTO's decision.

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