FCC Refuses to Strip Redskins Owner's Broadcast License Over Team Nickname

Washington Redskins Helmets - H 2014
AP Photo/Nick Wass

Washington Redskins Helmets - H 2014

The Washington Redskins are having a losing season in National Football League play but on Thursday the team and its owner, Daniel Snyder, won a victory from the Federal Communications Commission against those who claim the nickname of the team is offensive, indecent and profane, and that Snyder is not fit to hold a broadcast license.

The FCC has dismissed a series of claims against Snyder and his company Red Zebra concerning a Virginia radio station it owns, WWXX-FM, seeking to strip their license because the outlet broadcast the name Redskins which opponents claim is offensive to American Indians.

The FCC not only granted WWXX a license renewal, but also rejected arguments in petitions filed by opponents both on technical grounds and on the substance of the arguments.

The initial petition was filed Oct. 13 with the FCC by John Banzhaf III, an activist attorney and college professor, urging rejection of the WWXX license renewal and charging that Snyder does not "possess the character qualifications required of a commission licensee."

Banzhaf followed that up by supporting others to file additional petitions, including one against the Fox TV station in Los Angeles, which carries the NFL NFC games, including those of the Washington Redskins.

The petition got a lot of publicity later in October when FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said he agreed the name Redskins was offensive. He indicated the commission would examine the issues raised by Banzhaf.

Wheeler later backed off on his comments, softening his stance, but the impression remained that the FCC might be on the war path over the issue.

Instead the FCC in a symbolic sense is smoking the peace pipe with Snyder.

In its official response, dated Dec. 18, the FCC said that the petitions were filed three years after a deadline so they were "procedurally defective," and thus were dismissed.

The FCC also dismissed claims by Banzhaf that the use of the Redskins name violated the rules and laws that prohibit the use of obscenity and profanity on the broadcast airwaves; and that the repeated use of that name cause psychological harm not only to Indian children but also to native American adults.

"We reject Banzhaf's position in light of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," said the FCC in its response, adding: "Licensees have broad discretion — based on their right to free speech — to choose, in good faith, the programming they believe serves the needs and interests of their community … if there is to be free speech, it must be free for speech that we abhor and hate as well as for speech that we find tolerable and congenial."

The FCC also dismissed the claims that Snyder should be denied a license based on his character qualifications. The FCC, says the ruling, generally only considers misconduct based on felony convictions, fraudulent misrepresentations to the government and violations of anti trust or other laws protecting completion.

"We find Banzhaf has not established a prima facie case," says the ruling, "that Red Zebra lacks the character qualifications to be a commission licensee."

Now if only Snyder could find a quarterback as good as his lawyers at the Washington, D.C. firm of Wiley Rein LLP.