Tolerance 1, Redskins 0.
Thats the storyline this week, right? Thats the takeaway from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices decision Wednesday to cancel the Washington Redskins trademark because it is disparaging to Native Americans. Its a ruling that could cost Redskins owner Daniel Snyder millions of dollars, because it allows anyone else to put his teams name on a T-shirt, mug or whatever theyd like.
That means that unless the courts intervene, Snyder will be inclined to choose another name thats more palatable to his bottom line. Even if he does it for the wrong reason, its the right result. Snyder loses. Tolerance wins.
So why does this not feel like a victory?
Its certainly not because of sympathy for the Redskins owner. Was there an owner not named Donald Sterling who was more deserving of this open-field trademark tackle? Snyder has been stubborn and tone deaf, and hes clung to the Redskins name because the money it brought him is more important than the pain it brought others.
And make no mistake, Redskins does bring pain. Its a slur flung at a group of people that early Americans stole from and killed. Its an epithet thats not anything like a helicopter named Chinook or a college team named the Seminoles. Those are names meant to honor a tribe, not mock a people.
Snyder, it seemed, was never going to realize that at least not until his wallet told him to. It would have been better, though, if the government didnt tell him instead.
Yes, the trademark office was following established law that outlaws trademarks for language that holds individuals or groups in contempt. Its also true that the department has made similar decisions throughout the years, including one three years ago when it declined to issue a trademark to the web site Stop! Islamization of America.
But that provision of trademark law is constitutionally iffy, some scholars say. Trademarks are commercial speech and, like much speech, can and should receive substantial protections. Even if you recoil at the name Redskins, canceling its trademark is punishing Snyder for using his First Amendment rights.
For many, thats perfectly OK. After all, we count on the government to protect us in innumerable, legitimate ways from discrimination, from fraud, from the hazards that businesses ignore. But we should pause when our government protects us from being offended, even when we agree. Whats the next trademark or copyright, the next book title or product name, that will be too offensive to some?
Surely, Daniel Snyder plans on raising some of those issues to a judge or two. Maybe hell lose again. But he was losing, already, before Wednesday. His teams name was a public relations burden as it never had been before. More and more people were speaking out against it, including the president and members of Congress this time around.
Inevitably, that pressure was going to make its way to his bottom line. Or maybe, though less likely, his heart. Slowly but eventually, we collectively find our way to the right place. Eventually, tolerance wins. This week, it just got a little too much help.
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