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While the Slants are in the Spotlight, Chief Wahoo is on Deck

Posted in First Amendment, USPTO

Throughout the past decade, attorneys, judges, plaintiffs, and defendants have invested thousands of hours in the fight over offensive trademarks. Most of the public is aware of the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins, who continue to be embroiled in litigation that is currently pending with the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. But even more important is the pending litigation at the Supreme Court, where the Asian-American band The Slants have challenged the constitutionality of the law that prevents the federal government from granting the benefits of federal registration to trademarks that disparage groups of people.

We’ve discussed the history and merits of the case at at length. I won’t get into the details in this post. However, with the Cleveland Indians in town to play the Minnesota Twins, I was reminded that the Cleveland organization seemed to be escaping the glare of the media attention that had been focused on the Redskins and the Slants. Apart from the name of the team itself, Cleveland’s logos throughout only seem to worsen the potential to disparage or offend Native Americans. For reference, the logos and years of use are reproduced below:

Indians Logos

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Slants case (In re Tam) on January 18th. But while we await a decision from the Court, the Cleveland Indians provide us with a reminder that, regardless of what a court may say, the court of public opinion may have the final word. In fact, we have learned over the last two weeks that Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Rob Manfred has been in discussions with the Cleveland organization regarding the “Chief Wahoo” logo since the end of the World Series. The Commissioner has publicly stated that he is pushing the team “to transition away” from the logo. Just last January, the MLB awarded Cleveland the right to host the 2019 All-Star game. With recent events in Charlotte and throughout the U.S., it’s hard not to wonder whether Chief Wahoo’s retirement date may already be set.

We’ll have to wait and see how the Supreme Court rules in In re Tam but, as with the case of the Cleveland Indians, not all trademark battles are won in the court of law.