The Trademark Office’s prohibition against the registration of disparaging trademarks was struck down as unconstitutional yesterday. Many have questioned for a long time how a statute could legitimately refuse to register some marks because of their moral quality. Nevertheless, for decades, federal statute has stated that a trademark will be refused registration if it “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has declared that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act unconstitutional as violating the First Amendment. The majority stated that “”The government regulation at issue amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional.”
The case arose when a band applied to register the mark THE SLANTS in connection with live music entertainment services. The Trademark Office, however, refused protection of the mark as derogatory of people of Asian descent. The band appealed the case through several layers of administrative and judicial courts. At the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the government advanced an academically interesting argument: that the Lanham Act does not actually prohibit speech at all, but rather only prohibits the registration of some types of speech. It reasoned that because the government acts as the gatekeeper for trademark registrations, registered trademarks become government speech and can thus be regulated without implicating the First Amendment at all. The trademark owner remains free to practice the speech, whether registered or not. The Federal Circuit disagreed, finding that the law was impermissibly “created and applied in order to stifle the use of certain disfavored messages.”
A similar question arose most recently in the public eye when the Washington Redskins lost their 60-some year-old trademark registration because it was deemed disparaging of Native Americans. The team has appealed the decision, and it is expected that this newest case will give them some heavy ammunition. However, the REDSKINS case is now in front of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is neither above nor below the Federal Circuit. That means that THE SLANTS decision is non-binding on the Fourth Circuit Court, but can still be persuasive. If the Fourth Circuit finds that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is not unconstitutional – which it may or may not do depending on the questions presented to the court and the sua sponte aggressiveness of the judges – the question will be ripe for the Supreme Court to settle.