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U.S. court says trademarks can't disparage religious, ethnic groups

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday upheld a decision to refuse to allow the owners of a website titled "Stop! Islamization of America" to trademark the site's name, in a case that legal experts think has implications for the long-running fight over the name of the Washington Redskins NFL team.

Tuesday's case had its origin in 2011, when an examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) refused to register the website name as a trademark, arguing that it could be disparaging to American Muslims. The decision was reviewed by the USPTO itself, and upheld.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed that decision, citing essays and comments on the website which opposed building mosques in the United States, and expressions of support for Muslims who leave the faith.

"Appellants (the website owners) contend the essays posted on their website do not advocate suppression of the Islamic faith, but only oppose political Islamisation. The (USPTO) board disagreed, as do we," the court said in its ruling which found "substantial evidence" for the trademark office's decision.

Pamela Geller, an owner of the website, said she was not surprised by the ruling.

"This is a complete whitewash and we knew we would be up against the PC (politically correct) bias in the court. This is clear ongoing evidence of how the federal government and especially the courts, bend over backwards, kowtow and placate Muslim sensitivities," she said in an email.

The case is being watched by trademark experts for its potential to influence an ongoing fight at the USPTO over whether Washington's NFL team should lose its trademark for being disparaging to Native Americans, says Christine Farley, who teaches trademark law at the American University Washington College of Law.

But no matter which way the final decision goes, Redskins owner Dan Snyder could reap a merchandizing bonanza, said Farley.

"If he loses his trademark people are going to buy up the merchandise like crazy (before the name changes) and then they'll buy the new merchandise (with the new name)," she said.

It is unclear when the Redskins case will be resolved at the trademark office.

Snyder has said the Redskins name is a badge of honor, and vowed in 2013 to never change the team's name, according to media reports at the time.

(This version of the story fixes the name in paragraph five.)

(Reporting by Diane Bartz, editing by Ros Krasny and Bernard Orr)

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