U.S. top court refuses to hear Redskins trademark appeal

October 3, 2016 10:11 AM EDT

A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal by the Washington Redskins challenging a federal agency's decision to cancel the National Football League team's trademarks after finding the name disparaging to Native Americans.

While the justices refused to hear the team's appeal, the issues it raises are part of another case that the court last week agreed to hear involving the Oregon-based Asian-American rock band The Slants whose bid for trademark protection of its name was denied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Both the band and the team have argued that a 1946 federal law barring trademarks on racial slurs violates free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The Supreme Court opted not to hear the Redskins' appeal of a federal judge's ruling in July 2015 that upheld the Patent and Trademark Office's 2014 decision to cancel six trademarks held by the team and provided another victory for Native American activists pressing the franchise to change its name.

The team appealed that ruling to the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but had asked the Supreme Court to hear the case even before the 4th Circuit had a chance to rule.

The Slants had sought to trademark the band's name despite the term "slant eye" historically being used as a racial slur against people of Asian descent. A Patent and Trademark Office tribunal relied on a provision of the 1946 Lanham Act that prevents the registration of marks that may disparage certain people.

If the band wins its case before the high court, which will hear the case in its current term and rule by the end of June, that decision would also hand a victory to the Redskins. The band won at the federal appeals court level and the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to review that decision.

Even if the band loses, the Redskins still could pursue their challenge and potentially prevail because the team's arguments differ in some regards.

Federal trademarks can help protect trademarks nationwide in court and block the import and sale of counterfeit goods.

The agency canceled the team's trademarks at the request of Native American activists on the grounds that the team name disparaged Native Americans.

The Washington football team, one of the NFL's marquee franchises worth an estimated $2.4 billion, adopted the name Redskins in 1933 when it played in Boston before moving to Washington in 1937, and first trademarked the name in 1967.

The team said it has invested tens of millions of dollars building its brand around its name, and losing trademark protection would be "immensely burdensome and costly."

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