Supreme Court Ruling: Trademarks and Freedom of Speech

In a far-reaching decision, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision that struck down a ruling by the United States Patent and Trademark Office prohibiting the use of a disparaging name as a trademark. An Asian American rock band called The Slants applied for a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The United States Patent and Trademark Office refused to register such name under a provision in the Lanham Act, prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute any persons, living or dead. The rock band The Slants then appealed.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the band reasoning that such provision in the Lanham Act violated the First Amendment free speech clause. In its decision, the Court noted that the commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear as this case illustrates. The Court further reasoned that if affixing a commercial label would cause the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social volatility, free speech would be endangered.

Experts believe that this ruling may have a broader impact in other matters. In particular, currently the Washington Redskins are involved with a dispute over its name. The United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled its trademark in 2014 based upon its finding that the word “Redskins” is disparaging to Native Americans. The ruling of the Supreme Court in The Slants matter was unanimous. However, Justice Neil Gorsuch who was not a part of the Court when the case was argued in January did not take part in the decision.

If you would like more information regarding trademarks, Ted McGinn can be reach at 847-705-7555 or tmcginn@lavellelaw.com.