By Josh Escovedo
In 2014, the Washington Redskins lost a battle before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) where the petitioner, a group of Native American activists, sought cancellation of the “Washington Redskins” trademark, which had been used for over 80 years. Immediately after the decision, the Redskins sought recourse through the United States District Court, which is one of two appropriate venues for an appeal from the TTAB. However, the Redskins didn’t have any better luck there as Judge Gerald Bruce Lee affirmed the TTAB’s ruling in 2015, finding that the mark, and its related marks, are offensive to Native Americans and therefore ineligible for federal trademark protection under the Lanham Act, which prohibits registration of trademarks that “may disparage” or bring people into contempt. The Redskins, displeased with Judge Bruce Lee’s ruling, eventually petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, but the Court refused to hear the matter, finding that a similar case, In re Tam, stemming from the Federal Circuit, was preferable for review.
In In re Tam, the front man for an Asian-American rock band known as the Slants, sought registration of the band’s name through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), but was denied registration on the ground that the mark is disparaging. Accordingly, Tam sought appellate review before the Federal Circuit, which is the other appropriate venue for a USPTO or TTAB appeal, claiming that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. The Federal Circuit sided with Tam and ordered the TTAB to register the mark. The TTAB, dissatisfied with the Federal Circuit’s ruling, sought Supreme Court review, which as stated above, was granted.
The matter of Matal v. Tam was argued before the Supreme Court on January 18, 2017 and the Court issued its opinion on June 19, 2017. In an 8-0 decision, with Justice Neil Gorsuch taking no part in the consideration or decision of the case, the Court affirmed the Federal Circuit’s decision. Justice Alito, delivering the opinion of the Court, stated that “The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause,” and “Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech.” He further stated that:
The Commercial market is well-stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates. If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social “volatility,” free speech would be endangered.
Despite this favorable ruling for free speech, Justice Alito cautioned that the government still “has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend.” But he and the Court believe the disparagement clause in its current form is too broad. He stated that:
The clause reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group, or institution. It applies to trademarks like the following: “Down with racists,” “Down with sexists,” “Down with homophobes.” It is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause. In this way, it goes much further than is necessary to serve the interest asserted.
So interestingly, while the opinion is clearly a victory for Tam, the Slants, and the Redskins, Justice Alito left open the door for some form of governmental regulation of ideas that offend.
On the other hand, Justice Alito was clear that trademark registration does not constitute governmental speech, which has inferior free speech protection. So it’s reasonable to conclude that irrespective of Justice Alito’s cautionary proclamation, the Court will not allow the TTAB or USPTO to continue cancelling and rejecting trademarks it finds disparaging, irrespective of any amendment or narrowing to the disparagement clause. However, the most appropriate interpretation of the Court’s opinion is likely that the disparagement clause, in its current form, is unconstitutional and overbroad in its scope, but while the trademark registration does not constitute governmental speech, commercial speech is not without governmental regulation. As such, it is likely that Congress will amend the Lanham Act and narrow the scope of the disparagement clause, then the TTAB will cancel, or the USPTO will reject, a trademark under the revised disparagement clause. Only then will we learn exactly how far the Court is willing to go to protect free speech, but based upon Justice Alito’s remarks regarding the danger of treating commercial speech any differently, it seems likely that the Court would rule in favor of free speech again.