Justices say government can't refuse disparaging trademarks

The Supreme Court of the United States decided in the case ofMatal v. Tam Monday to strike down a key provision of the Lanham Act barring the United States Patent and Trademark Office from recognizing a disparaging trademark, citing concerns that the act violated the First Amendment. The team is now appealing a federal judge's decision to uphold the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's cancellation of their trademark, because it is a racial slur and disparages Native Americans (and, per this website's house style, is not fit for print).

In 2014, following a vehement campaign to pressure the National Football League and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the team's name over the concern that it offended many Native Americans, the trademark office canceled the Redskins' trademark, citing the same clause in the Lanham Act as it did with the Slants' application in 2011. But then a majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said the law violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

After losing in a lower court, the band won at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which ruled 9-3 previous year that "the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech".

The justices ruled the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes on free speech rights. As Justice Samuel Alito put it in a part of the opinion that all the justices joined, "If the federal registration of a trademark makes the mark government speech, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently". But founder Simon Tam said the point of the band's name is just the opposite: an attempt to reclaim a slur and use it "as a badge of pride".

A federal appeals court had sided with the Slants in 2015, saying First Amendment protects "even hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities". Alito rejected arguments that the government has an interest in preventing speech that is offensive to certain groups.


Banzhaf filed a petition to deny the renewal of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's Washington radio station, WWXX-FM, over its use of the term "Redskins" on-air to refer to the team.

Band says decision means "marginalized communities" can determine for themselves what's best, even if it involves words thought racially insensitive.

"It canceled the registration for the Washington Redskins in 2014 at the behest of some Native Americans who considered the name offensive". Snyder issued a quick statement after Monday's decision: "I am THRILLED". Alito also said trademarks are not immune from First Amendment protection as part of a government program or subsidy.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office appealed that ruling to the high court in April, and the justices granted certiorari in September.

Lisa Simpson, an intellectual property expert, characterized the Supreme Court's decision as a slippery slope.


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