U.S. top court says law banning disparaging trademarks is unconstitutional

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 19, 2017 10:20 AM

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a law forbidding official registration of offensive trademarks unconstitutionally limits free speech in a case involving a band called The Slants, an outcome the government has said could lead to a proliferation of racial slurs as sanctioned trademarks.

The court ruled in favor of Portland, Oregon-based Asian-American dance rock band The Slants, which had been denied a trademark because the government deemed the name disparaging to people of Asian descent. The band challenged the rejection as a violation of free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, winning at the appeals court level before the government appealed to the high court.

The ruling is expected to have a direct impact on another high-profile case involving the National Football League's Washington Redskins. The team filed a legal challenge to a 2014 decision by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tribunal canceling its trademarks as disparaging to Native Americans.

After the government rejected The Slants request, band frontman Simon Tam appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, which in 2015 ruled that the so-called disparagement provision of the 1946 law governing trademarks ran afoul of the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.

Tam has said he chose to call the band The Slants to reclaim a term some consider a derogatory reference to Asian people's eyes, and wear it as a "badge of pride." The band's lawyers have argued that the government cannot use trademark law to impose burdens on free speech to protect listeners from offense.

The federal government, which appealed the appeals court ruling, said in court papers that the government should not be required to approve trademarks "containing crude references to women based on parts of their anatomy; the most repellent racial slurs and white-supremacist slogans; and demeaning illustrations of the prophet Mohammed and other religious figures."

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)