The First Amendment and Trademarks: Protecting “The Thought We Hate”

Can the federal government refuse to register offensive trademarks?  The Supreme Court held yesterday that it cannot.  Although the case did not directly involve the “Washington Redskins” trademark registration, discussed in previous blog articles in this space, it effectively gave the Redskins a victory in their effort to reinstate their trademark registration against efforts to cancel their mark as disparaging.

The Lanham Act governs all federal registration of trademarks.  Since it was enacted in 1946, the Lanham Act has included the “Disparagement Clause,” which prohibits the registration of trademarks “which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”  In Matal v. Tam, No. 15-1293 (2017), a case sure to have wide-ranging effects, the Supreme Court unanimously held the Disparagement Clause unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The case involves Simon Tam, the lead singer of a band called “The Slants,” who sought federal registration of “THE SLANTS” trademark.  The band chose its name in an attempt to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about its members’ own Asian ethnicities.  The United States Patent & Trademark Office (“PTO”) rejected Tam’s request to register the mark under the Disparagement Clause, finding “there is . . . a substantial composite of persons who find the term in the applied-for mark offensive.”

The Supreme Court, however, held the rejection of Tam’s registration unconstitutionally discriminated against speech.  The Supreme Court resolved two key issues.  First, it found that trademarks are private speech; not government speech.  Second, the Court ruled that such viewpoint-based discrimination of trademarks is impermissible.

Trademarks are Private, Not Government, Speech

The First Amendment does not regulate government speech.  The general effect of this principle is that the government is not required to give equal time and representation to competing viewpoints when the government itself speaks – in contrast to government regulation of a private person’s speech, which must be viewpoint-neutral.  For example, the government is not required to mount a pro-smoking crusade to balance out its anti-smoking campaign.  In Tam, the PTO argued that the act of approving of a trademark was itself government speech and therefore was not within the reach of the First Amendment.

Justice Alito, writing on behalf of the entire Court, quickly shot down the PTO’s contention, ruling that trademarks are private, not government, speech.  The Court explained that the government does not “dream up” the marks a private party seeks to register: the PTO registers the mark under the Lanham Act based on objective criteria, regardless of the content of the mark.  If registering a trademark is government speech, the Court wrote, then the government is “babbling prodigiously and incoherently” while “expressing numerous contradictory views . . . [and] unashamedly endorsing a vast array of commercial products and services.”  To hold otherwise would disqualify any speech subject to government registration from First Amendment protection.  This would necessarily include copyright protection, with broad and disturbing implications for the speech expressed in copyright-protected writing, art, music, film, and other content.

The Disparagement Clause Impermissibly Discriminates Based on Viewpoint

Having decided that trademarks are covered by the First Amendment’s free speech protection, the Supreme Court went on to find that the Disparagement Clause embodied an unconstitutional discrimination against speech based on its viewpoint.  Although the Court could not muster a five-member majority to agree on the exact reasoning, the Court unanimously disapproved the refusal to register trademarks based on their perceived offensiveness.

As four members of the Court explained, the Disparagement Clause impermissibly authorized the PTO to “favor some viewpoints or ideas at the expense of others.”  “Giving offense,” they wrote, “is a viewpoint.” Because the PTO’s refusal to register “The Slants” was to prevent offense, it ran afoul of “the heart of the First Amendment,” which protects “the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”  And because the Disparagement Clause impermissibly went further than necessary to achieve the government’s purported goal of preventing discrimination, it was unconstitutional.  A majority of the Court arguably went further, holding that because the Disparagement Clause impermissibly discriminated based on viewpoint, it was subject either to “heightened” or “strict” scrutiny and was therefore invalid regardless of whether it furthered the prevention of discrimination.

The Effects of Tam

The effects of Tam are likely to be comprehensive and wide-ranging.  In invalidating the Disparagement Clause, the Court ruled the PTO cannot refuse to register a trademark because it is disparaging.  This calls into question whether any viewpoint-based discrimination for a business’s trademarks or copyrights will pass constitutional muster.  Most prominently, it is good news for the embattled Washington Redskins, who were under fire when the PTO previously cancelled their registration based on their mark disparaging Native Americans.