Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who successfully moved a federal agency to withdraw trademark protections from the Washington Redskins because it considers the team’s name derogatory, lives on a reservation where Navajos root for the Red Mesa High School Redskins. She opposes this name; the Native Americans who picked and retain it evidently do not.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office acted on a 1946 law banning trademarks that “may disparage” persons. “May” gives the agency latitude to disregard evidence regarding how many people actually feel disparaged or feel that others should feel disparaged. Blackhorse speaks of “the majority of Native American people who have spoken out on this.” This would seem implausible even if a 2004 poll had not found that 90 percent of Native Americans were not offended by the Redskins’ name. A 2013 AP-GfK poll showed that 79 percent of Americans of all ethnicities opposed changing it, and just 18 percent of “nonwhite football fans” favored changing it.
The federal agency acted in the absence of general or Native American revulsion about “Redskins,” and probably because of this absence. Are the Americans who are paying attention to this controversy comfortable with government saying, in effect, that if people are not offended, they should be, so government must decide what uses of language should be punished?