Justices say law on offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

In a victory for freedom of speech, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that a trademark law banning offensive names was unconstitutional, siding with a rock band called The Slants, whose name had been deemed racially insulting by the feds.

Snyder never appeared to waver from his stance, even after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office the following year canceled six federal trademarks for the Redskins' trademark protection on the name because the term is "disparaging to Native Americans".

The Slants went to court after being denied trademark registration for a name they chose as an act of "reappropriation" - adopting a term used by others to disparage Asian Americans and wearing it as a badge of pride. 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.

In its 39-page decision announced by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled that the intent of the trademark rule was not to "cleanse commercial speech of any expression likely to cause offense".

Lisa Blatt, a lawyer representing the Redskins, told Reuters the team is thrilled with Monday's ruling because it resolves "the Redskins' long-standing dispute with the government". A federal appeals court in Richmond put the team's case on hold while waiting for the Supreme Court to rule in the Slants case. But some say the government approval of trademarks confers more than a commercial benefit and suggests tacit government approval of the slurs.

The band welcomed the ruling.

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"I am THRILLED!" he said in a statement Monday morning.

The PTO canceled the "Redskins" trademark in 2014, claiming the team name and logo are disparaging to Native Americans.

But when the litigation of the word "redskins" is left to a group like the PTO, the resulting decisions will always say more about that body's own biases than anything else.

Alito was backed in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen Breyer. New Justice Neil Gorsuch didn't take part in the case because it was argued before he joined the court.

"A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all", writes Kennedy. And the idea that our market will be flooded by people who just want to register marks on a whim is ridiculous. people have to have an established business objective, pay the fees, go through the paperwork and have their information in public. The band's lawyers argued that the government can not use trademark law to impose burdens on free speech to protect listeners from offense.

Trademark office spokesman Paul Fucito said officials are reviewing the court's ruling and plan to issue further guidance on how they will review trademark applications going forward. The protections include blocking the sale of counterfeit merchandise and working to pursue a brand development strategy.

  • Michelle Webb