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Professor Preps Challenge to Redskins Owner Snyder's Radio Licenses

George Washington University professor John Banzhaf and his supporters are considering challenging the radio station licenses of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, but he is also considering a host of other ways to keep the FCC busy this football season.

Synder's Red Zebra Broadcasting owns seven radio stations.

He told B&C there are a number of options if he goes that route, but there are other legal avenues he is exploring to pressure Snyder and/or broadcasters to drop the name. Snyder has so far been adamant about keeping the name and what he says is its proud and positive heritage.

If Banzhaf does challenge the licenses, that could start with a California station whose renewal date "is just around the corner," he says.

Banzhaf has successfully used legal campaigns, including FCC petitions, to promote causes including getting tobacco companies to take smoking ads off TV and getting more diverse faces on it.

Banzhaf has been trying for years to get the Redskins to change their name or broadcasters not to use it, but points to the many recent events that have "substantially strengthened" the arguments he plans to make.

Those include a U.S. Patent and Trade office ruling that the name was offensive and the associated trademarks should not get federal protection. That happened once before, prompting Banzhaf to take aim at some TV station licenses in 2005, though that did not result in licenses being pulled or the name being dropped on-air.

This time around, momentum seems to be building, with former FCC officials, legislators and the President all suggesting it could be time for a name change. 

"My colleagues and I are considering a variety of legal action to use federal broadcast law to attack the continued unnecessary use of the racist term 'Redskins' on the air," Banzhaf told B&C/MultiChannel news, "especially during prime time when impressionable children — Indian as well as non-Indian — are adversely affected."

He did not say what legal tactics among many available he will ultimately opt for (see below), but one would be challenging all the FCC station licenses.

"Another [approach] is to oppose the license renewal of a station in California where the license renewal date is just around the corner," he says, while a third "would be to advise small stations — in markets where there are a significant number of Indians, and not very much interest in D.C. football — that their license renewals will be challenged if they continue to use that word on the air."

And what grounds would there be for denial?

"In each case the underlying legal theory would be based upon what happened with the challenge I helped put together in the early 1970s to the license renewal of a major D.C. TV station. We argued racism because, at the time, the station had no black on-the-air reporters (much less anchors), not any blacks in significant on-the-air roles, even though D.C. was overwhelmingly black. The reaction was immediate — with all of the major TV stations suddenly putting blacks on the air as reporters and in other positions.

"As with most legal documents, the arguments would probably be framed in the alternative. One could argue by analogy to obscenities (including even fleeting ones), to hate speech, to profanity ('including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance'), to the Drug Lyrics Policy, or more generally that using racist derogatory words on the air when it isn't necessary isn't consistent with the legal requirement to operate in the 'public interest, convenience, and necessity,'" he said.

But Banzhaf suggests he has many options.

He provided this partial list of approaches to getting broadcasters to scrub the name.

1. "Informally Request an FCC Conference with Broadcasters About This Issue in the Hopes of Informally Pressuring Them to Stop Using the Word.

2. "File Complaints with the FCC When 'Redskins' Is Used Unnecessarily on the Air.

3. "Petition the FCC to Issue a Policy Statement [similar to its earlier drug policy statement (Public Notice 71-205)] about Hateful Racist Words in General, and/or 'Redskins' Specifically.

4. "Petition the FCC to Include 'Redskins' under 'Profane Speech' ['including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance'].

5. "Petition the FCC [file a Petition for Rulemaking] for a New Rule Restricting the On-Air Use of Words Which Are Highly Derogatory, Racist, and Hateful to Ethnic and Other Groups.

6. "Send Letter to Selected Broadcasters Putting Them on Notice That Repeated and Unnecessary Use of 'Redskins' May Violate Federal Broadcast Law.

7. "Threaten Selected Stations with Specific Legal Actions, Including an Opposition to Their License Renewal, If They Continue to Use the Word.

8. "Oppose the Renewal of a Station's Broadcast License Because of Repeated and Unnecessary On-Air Use of 'Redskins' — this could be everything from a major broadcaster which capitalizes on the 'Redskins' name to a small radio station broadcasting in a region where there is a large concentration of American Indians and little interest in Washington's NFL team — NOTE: a challenge to a CA station license would be very timely now."