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Let Redskins’ owner steer name change

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Should the Washington Redskins professional football team change its nickname? Yes. The time has come for the NFL team to change its name to something that isn’t offensive to Native Americans.

But that decision should be made by the owner of the team, Daniel Snyder — and not because the federal government decides which words and terms are offensive or off-limits.

The controversy over the Redskins name has been percolating for decades. (In Oregon, it’s an issue that calls to mind a similar controversy, over whether public high schools should be allowed to use Native American terms for their nicknames.)

Recently, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office added new fuel to the Redskins fire by ruling that the name is “disparaging of Native Americans” and should be stripped of trademark protection.

As The Associated Press reported, the

2-1 decision doesn’t directly force the team to abandon the name. But it does add momentum to the campaign to force Snyder to make the change.

The decision from the Patent and Trademark Office has been a long time coming: This case has been kicking around the office since at least 1999, when it made a similar ruling that was overturned on a technicality in 2003.

The Redskins immediately announced plans to appeal the ruling, so it easily could be another decade before the case reaches a resolution. By that time, Snyder may have made the issue moot by deciding to change the name of the team — although he’s been adamant that he has no intention of doing that.

But even Americans who think a change in the team’s nickname is long overdue should pause to consider whether they want the federal government deciding what language is offensive or off-limits.

It’s a point that was made with force and vigor by Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins in a blog she wrote for the newspaper.

It’s true that the law allows the government to deny registration for trademarks that “may disparage” individuals or groups or “bring them into contempt or disrepute.” And it’s also true that denying a trademark is not the same as banning a word or phrase because it’s offensive.

But this still leaves the federal government in a position of deciding what names or language it deems offensive. If that’s a prospect that makes you nervous, well, join the club: Folks as diverse as Fox News commentators and ACLU attorneys share your queasiness.

Over time, we expect that Snyder will bow to what now seems inevitable. But it shouldn’t be because a couple of federal bureaucrats have designated certain words for the trash can.

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