Today the Supreme Court agreed to decide an ongoing conflict, pitting a trademark registrant’s First Amendment rights against longstanding law precluding trademark registration of “disparaging” marks.
In This Corner: Trademark Law & the USPTO
Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, precludes trademark registration of marks that are: immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage …or bring them into contempt or disrepute….” Since World War II, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has relied on Section 2(a) to deny registration to such marks, but in December 2015, for the first time, the legality of Section 2(a) was called into question.
In This Corner: The First Amendment & The Slants
An Asian-American rock band, The Slants, sought to register its name, but the USPTO rejected the name as disparaging. The Slants appealed to a federal district court, which affirmed the USPTO’s decision, but when The Slants appealed to the Federal Circuit, the majority found that Section 2(a) was unconstitutional restraint of free speech under the First Amendment.
The Slants asked the Federal Circuit to order the USPTO to register its trademark, but the court declined. The USPTO issued guidelines, advising trademark applicants that any applications with potentially disparaging marks would be held in limbo until the issue was resolved. Then the USPTO asked the Supreme Court to decide the issue.
In This Other Corner: The Washington Redskins
Meanwhile in June 2014 the USPTO deregistered the Washington Redskins’ trademark under Section 2(a). The Washington football team appealed, lost in federal district court and appealed to the Fourth Circuit. While that appeal is currently pending, the Washington team has asked the Supreme Court to intercede.
The Judges’ Score Card: Key Issues
The Slants, the Washington team and the Federal Circuit majority basically argue that trademarks equal free speech. They contend that Section 2(a) amounts to viewpoint discrimination and is subject to strict scrutiny review, Section 2(a) fails to withstand “strict scrutiny” and is therefore unconstitutional. “Strict scrutiny” requires the USPTO to prove that Section 2(a) serves a compelling government interest, that it is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest, and that it is the least restrictive means for achieving that interest.
The USPTO, the two federal district courts, and the Federal Circuit’s dissenting opinion argue that trademarks do not equal free speech, and Section 2(a) is not subject to “strict scrutiny.” They contend that Section 2(a) does not prohibit any speech but instead denies the benefits of registration to private disparaging speech. In short, The Slants and the Washington team are entirely free to call themselves whatever they want, to publicize their names and use their names in commerce, but they are not entitled to the extra benefits conferred by federal trademark registration.
TKO or 12 Rounds?
While today’s grant of certiorari is only the beginning of the first round, recent Court decisions upholding hateful speech in other situations would tend to indicate that USPTO may be punching above its weight class and Section 2(a) might hit the canvas.