Skip to main content

Banzhaf Targets TV's Over 'Redskin'

Washington attorney John Banzhaf, who helped sue tobacco ads off the airwaves in the late 1960's, is renewing his campaign to remove "Redskin" from the nation's broadcast vernacular, or at least limit its use, by threatening to go after station licenses.

He has sent registered letters to the four biggest stations in Washington--WJLA, WUSA, WTTG and WRC--advising them of a Friday Federal Appeals Court decision that he says puts the Washington Redskin trademarks in jeopardy by "restoring the unanimous finding by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that the word 'Redskins' was so racially derogatory and offensive that the Washington Redskins’ trademarks should be invalidated."

Those renewals in D.C. don't come up for another seven years, so the stations have some time to ponder the issue.

Our reading of the Appeals Court decision suggests the reversal turns mostly on procedural grounds, but Banzhaf's effort may be as much about the threat and hassle of the complaint as it is the likelihood of prevailing. In fact, he said as much.

"I am counting on the fact that challenges can be very expensive, even if the odds of the challenge succeeding are small," Banzhaf told B&C. "While the proceeding is going on there is a financial cloud over the head of the stations, over their credit rating, over their ability to attract capital or talent, to acquire or be acquired."

Banzhaf, who has also been pushing to get "Redskin" off the airwaves since the late 1960's, says that the court decision, combined with the broadcasters' willingness to self regulate over indecnecy and profanity, plus the rise of the Internet as a tool to recruit support, has prompted the move to target stations for license renewal challenges.

He also plans to contact stations in Midwestern states with large American Indian populations, putting them on notice that continuing to use the term to refer to the Washington NFL team could draw a license challenge.

States he is targeting with licenses coming up for renewal shortly include Colorado and South Dakota (December '05), Oklahoma (February '06), and Arizona and New Mexico (June '06).

Banzhaf says he realizes that there will be special circumstances when "Redskin" is unavoidable, i.e. in newscasts or news conferences, or when the logo appears in news coverage or highlight reels, but in routine broadcasts, he says, they should subtitute "D.C." or "Washington."

As precedent, he points to the fact that broadcasters do not generally refer to the full name of the group NWA becuse of sensitivity to the "N word." And in that case, he points out, the group is made up of African Americans who have chosen to call themselves that. There are no Indians on the Redskins, he points out, and Indians "certainly did not chose to call the team that."