Today, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Trademark Act is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. The Section 2(a) provision bans the issuance of trademark registration to marks that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) deems are “immoral” or “scandalous,” based on ordinary and common meanings of the proposed mark. The high court ruled that this immoral or scandalous bar discriminated on the basis of a viewpoint and therefore conflicts with the First Amendment.
The Lanham Act provides for the administration of federal trademark registration. While registration of a mark is not mandatory, and a mark can still be used in commerce and enforce it against infringers, federal trademark registration gives trademark owners valuable benefits. For example, a valid federal trademark registration gives prima facie evidence of the mark’s validity, and serves as constructive notice to others of the registrant’s claim of ownership of that mark.
Here, in the case of Iancu v. Brunetti, Erik Brunetti sought these benefits by applying for federal registration for the trademark “FUCT” for use in connection with his clothing lines, but the PTO refused this application for violation of Section 2(a). The Examining Attorney assessed his proposed mark as a “total vulgar” mark and therefore unregistrable, and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed, stating that the mark was “highly offensive,” “vulgar,” and that it had “decidedly negative sexual connotations.”
Upon review, the Supreme Court struck down this provision for being unconstitutional. The Court emphasized a core foundation of freedom of speech law: that the government may not discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions it conveys. The Court concluded that this provision of the Lanham Act “allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan illustrated this content-based discrimination with four made-up marks: “Love Rules” “Hate Rules” “Always Be Good” and “Always Be Cruel.” The Court contended that the statute would favor marks such as “Love Rules” and “Always Be Good” but disfavor a mark such as “Hate Rules” and “Always Be Cruel.” This favoring or disfavoring based on content results in viewpoint-discriminatory application. Under this provision, the statute “on its face, distinguishes between two opposed sets of ideas: those aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them; those inducing societal nods of approval and those provoking offense and condemnation.” Therefore, the Supreme Court struck down this ban on federal registration of these “scandalous” or “immoral” marks.