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Ruling won’t end fight against Redskins name

The University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux logo

The University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux logo hangs on Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., on Nov. 9, 2010. Credit: AP / Dave Kolpack

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling effectively allowing the Washington Redskins to keep their trademark name even though many consider the term “redskins” offensive to Native Americans.

The ruling had the effect of voiding a 2014 decision by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office to cancel the registration of the National Football League team’s right to exclusively market the Redskins name on grounds that it is considered a racial slur.

The specific case before the court in June concerned an Asian-American dance band called the Slants that had been prevented from trademarking its name.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous court, said, “It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

By extension, the ruling means the use of the name Redskins is also constitutionally protected free speech.

Many Native Americans, myself included, have long urged the Washington team to stop using this derogatory term. For years, team owner Daniel Snyder has brazenly proclaimed that he will “never” get rid of this name, no matter how racist some people consider it.

Believing that there was no use in appealing to the better part of Snyder’s conscience, a core group of Native Americans sought to legally end his team’s sole right to market Redskins merchandise. Such economic leverage, had it been successful, would have cut deeply into the millions of dollars the Washington team makes from Redskins clothing and other products. As a businessman, Snyder might have had to find a new name for his team because merchandise is a major source of revenue in corporate American sports.

But Snyder aggressively fought the Trademark Office’s ruling, which never took effect and now has been undone.

Despite the setback, the fight to stop this marketing of hate is not over. The days of the Redskins name and image are numbered.

It won’t take an act of government for this to happen. All it requires is the exercise of conscience by ordinary people who refuse to go along with something they consider wrong. Despite the nation’s improbable election of a man known for bigoted expression, I believe the American people have become increasingly fed up with depictions of hate in our culture.

There are signs everywhere of a renewed sensitivity, based on the sentiments of ordinary people. From the lowering of the Confederate flag in Southern state houses to the removal of statues of revered Southern Civil War hero in cities like New Orleans, Americans are done with keeping alive hateful symbols that needlessly exacerbate racial tensions.

Snyder can boast about his free speech victory all he wants. But one day soon, his business empire built on degrading and dehumanizing my people will end.

Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. And he is the author of the memoir “My Mother Is Now Earth.” He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.