FCC rules 'Redskins' can stay on the air

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday ruled the name "Redskins" is not profane or obscene.

In a formal ruling, the commission rejected calls to yank the broadcast license of a radio station owned by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for excessively using the team's name, which some find offensive. 

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George Washington University professor John Banzhaf filed a petition in September opposing the license renewal of the D.C. station, WWXX-FM. 

The FCC can prohibit the use of profane or obscene language, but the team's name does not fit the definition of either category, according to the FCC's Media Bureau, which handled the case.

The FCC, following the Supreme Court, found obscenity must "depict or describe sexual conduct." The team's name also does not fit the commission’s definition of profane, which is limited to "words that are sexual or excretory in nature."

The commission cited the First Amendment, saying it does not withhold licenses based on a subjective view of what is appropriate programming. 

It noted that some racial or religious slurs are offensive to many, but it has previously declined "extending the bounds of profanity to reach such language given constitutional considerations."

"Indeed, the Commission has held that '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,'" according to the commission.  

The commission rejected a number of complaints lodged by Banzhaf and noted that his petition was issued nearly three years too late to be considered.

Banzhaf had claimed the station is operating against the public interest by repeatedly using the team’s name, which he calls "hate speech" and a "fighting word" that has no constitutional protection.

"Banzhaf has not demonstrated that the Commission has ever denied renewal of a broadcast license based on the broadcast of programming or individual words that do not violate the Act or the Commission’s rules," the commission responded. 

The commission also said it did not have authority to bar hate speech unless it is intended and likely to incite "imminent lawless action."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he personally finds the term Redskins offensive but that his view would not bias the commission's decision.

The attempt to use the word to get the station taken off the air was always unlikely. Banzhaf said his petition could apply to most radio stations across the country that use the team's name “repetitively and unnecessarily.”

Democrats and civil-rights advocates have increased their opposition to the team name this year. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), though, was on the few to endorse the effort to take the word off the air. 

Nearly the entire Democratic Caucus in the Senate sent a letter earlier this year to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking him to pressure the team to change its name.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also canceled a number of the team's trademarks, finding the name disparaging. 

Other Democrats have pushed legislation to remove the NFL's non-profit status over the league's use of the name. 

This story was updated at 5:16 p.m.