On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion, holding that the First Amendment’s right to free speech extends to trademark protection of words and phrases that are purportedly offensive.
For over half a century, trademark law prohibited registration of marks that were prejudicial to or could otherwise be deemed disparaging to certain groups or people. Significantly, however, in Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017), an Asian-American band specifically chose the name “Slants,” believing “that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they [would] help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” Id. at 1751. After the en banc Federal Circuit found that the disparagement clause under the Lanham Act was facially unconstitutional, the United States Patent and Trademark Office filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted in order to weigh in on the disparagement clause at issue, and whether the proposed trademark was official words endorsed by the government, or conversely, words of a private person.
In its unanimous decision, the high court answered this question by declaring that “[t]rademarks are private, not government speech…[and] [t]he public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” Id. at 1760 (internal citation omitted). The Court also expressed concern with broadening the government speech doctrine, and in affirming the Federal Circuit’s judgment, held that that “if private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.” Id. at 1748.
Tam may very well have wide reaching effects. While the Supreme Court made clear that a word or phrase in a trademark registration will not constitute government speech, the aftermath of this decision could give rise to various potentially “offensive” or “disparaging” trademark applications, which may ultimately rest with the consumer in determining whether to accept or reject the mark in its use in commerce.
Because many issues can arise in applying for a trademark, Malloy and Malloy, P.L’s knowledgeable and experienced intellectual property attorneys are ready to advise and guide you along the way from an application through registration, and subsequent enforcement measures.