An interesting footnote appeared in an opinion by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Maryland this week. Messitte stated that the court would no longer use the team name “Redskins” in any opinion and will refer instead to “the Washington Team.” I recently wrote a Washington Post column on the controversy over the Redskins name. The question is whether it is appropriate to limit the use of the name in an opinion when there is considerable public debate over whether it is offensive and whether, if it is barred in opinions, the court should bar its use in court.
The footnote appears on the first page of a ruling dismissing some claims in the case of ex-New York Giants linebacker Barrett Green who accused the Redskins of giving its players financial rewards for deliberately injuring opposing athletes.
The footnote states:
Pro Football’s team is popularly known as the Washington “Redskins,” but the Court will refrain from using the team name unless reference is made to a direct quote where the name appears. Pro Football’s team will be referred to hereafter simply as “the Washington Team.”
According, the opinion uses somewhat awkward language such as “on December 5, 2004, Green, who was a defensive linebacker for the New York Giants, was playing in a game with the Washington team at the Washington team’s Maryland stadium.”
The action presents a novel question. Clearly the court is allowed to bar offensive language not just in opinions but in court. However, if the court believes the name is offensive for opinions, it would seem to follow that he would instruct others not to use the name in court. The problem is that this issue is hotly contested and indeed it is the subject of pending litigation in the appeal from the board at the Patent office in denying trademark protection to the team. While the name was found offensive by this small administrative board, it is on appeal and the legally enforceable name of the team remains “Redskins.” Until the matter is resolved, should a court adopt such a rule? There is great latitude given courts in managing their courtrooms and opinions, particularly in barring words or conduct viewed as disruptive or offense.
What do you think?
Messitte has a B.A. from Amherst College in 1963 and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1966. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in São Paulo, Brazil from 1966 to 1968. He sits on the United States District Court for the District of Maryland and was nominated by President Bill Clinton on August 6, 1993,