UPDATED: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 - 10:36am
The Federal Communications Commission [FCC] could effectively ban the use of the word "Redskins" by broadcasters, based upon a filing by several former FCC commissioners and other communication law experts, if the team's name isn't changed, according to a letter sent Friday to team owner Dan Snyder which concluded that using the word "Redskin" on the air is likely to be contrary to federal broadcast law because it constitutes an "indecency" if not an "obscenity."
The letter from former FCC chairman Reed Hundt and 11 other broadcast law experts says the R-word is the most derogatory name a Native American can be called, and is an "unequivocal racial slur" akin to the N-word. They liken the use of "Redskin" to an "obscenity," which is illegal on the public airwaves in any form, rather than simply an "indecency" which is restricted to certain times of the day.
The letter also likens the use of the term to "obscene pornographic language on live television," noting that "As The Washington Post's Mike Wise pointed out, 'America wouldn't stand for a team called the Blackskins - or the Mandingos, the Brothers, the Yellowskins, insert your ethnic minority here.'"
The tactic of challenging the use of the word "Redskins" before the FCC was conceived by public interest law professor John Banzhaf, whose legal action at the FCC led to the ban on cigarette commercials. He says the concept for challenging stations for racism is based upon a legal complaint he helped file in 1969 against a DC area television station because, like virtually all other stations at the time, it refused to use African Americans in meaningful on-the-air roles.
Very shortly after the license challenge was filed, and long before it was decided, that station as well as others in the DC area made a dramatic change in policy and began employing blacks as on-air reporters, as principles in locally-originated programming, and in executive positions. The station recognized that such a broadcast license challenge could have significant effects even while pending, including affecting the station's credit rating, its ability to attract top talent, etc.
Banzhaf says that renewal of a broadcast license can be denied even in the absence of a violation of an existing rule, citing WLBT-TV which lost its license because of its racism on the air, and WJIM-TV which suffered the same fate because of political bias. He also notes the FCC "drug lyrics policy" which, even in the absence of a specific rule, threatened broadcasters with the loss of their licenses if they aired songs alleged to "promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs."
He also notes that "redskins" fits squarely within the FCC's existing rule prohibiting the broadcasting of "profanity" from 6 AM to 10 PM, and defining "profanity" as: "language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance."
Chairman Hundt's letter points out that broadcasters are so concerned about using inappropriate racial language that CBC fired long-time commentator Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder over racially stereotyped remarks about black athletes. Banzhaf notes that Don Imus was suspended for using the racially-charged term "nappy" regarding the hair of some black athletes, and MSNBC's long-time contributor Pat Buchanan was fired for derogatory racial remarks. More recently, using the phrase "Chick in the Armor" in connection with Asian athlete Jeremy Li led to the firing and suspension of several ESPN employees. Thus broadcasters, as well as viewers and listeners, now recognize that racism on the air is "grossly offensive to members of the public," argues Banzhaf.
"No station would ever have its broadcast license renewed if it regularly used the N-word on the air, even if that was the name of a well known team or musical group. That's why, for example, the musical group 'N*gg*z With Attitude' is never referred to by its full and correct name, even though it is made up of African Americans who freely chose the name. The Redskins team is not made up of American Indians, and the R-word - as offensive to them as the N-word is to blacks - was not chosen by them, and is being used over their strongest possible objection as racist and racially derogatory," Banzhaf notes.