The Supreme Court has struck a blow for free speech in a case that might on its face seem rather petty, but maintains the principle that government must butt out of judging what is a permissible level of offensiveness.
The case involved the Patent and Trademark Office refusing to grant a trademark to an Asian-American rock band that wanted to call themselves “The Slants.” The agency cited a section of the law that denies trademarks for names that are “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 …”
According to the opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, the band wanted to use the ethnic slur as its name to “reclaim” the term and drain it of its denigrating force.
But the government argued that issuing a trademark was tantamount to the government engaging in disparaging speech, citing a previous case in which the court held that the state of Texas was not required to issue car license plates commemorating Confederate Veterans.
Alito held that license plates are government speech but a trademark is not. He wrote that the federal law did not create trademarks but merely was instituted to protect trademarks from being usurped:
The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application based on a provision of federal law prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” … We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.
“The principle underlying trademark protection is that distinctive marks — words, names, symbols, and the like — can help distinguish a particular artisan’s goods from those of others.” … A trademark “designate[s] the goods as the product of a particular trader” and “protect[s] his good will against the sale of another’s product as his.” … It helps consumers identify goods and services that they wish to purchase, as well as those they want to avoid.
“[F]ederal law does not create trademarks.” … Trademarks and their precursors have ancient origins, and trademarks were protected at common law and in equity at the time of the founding of our country. … For most of the 19th century, trademark protection was the province of the States. … Eventually, Congress stepped in to provide a degree of national uniformity, passing the first federal legislation protecting trademarks in 1870. (Citations omitted.)
Justice Anthony Kennedy strongly concurred and wrote:
At its most basic, the test for viewpoint discrimination is whether — within the relevant subject category — the government has singled out a subset of messages for disfavor based on the views expressed. … (“[T]he government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includible subject”). In the instant case, the disparagement clause the Government now seeks to implement and enforce identifies the relevant subject as “persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” Within that category, an applicant may register a positive or benign mark but not a derogatory one. The law thus reflects the Government’s disapproval of a subset of messages it finds offensive. This is the essence of viewpoint discrimination. …
A law that can be directed against speech found offen- sive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.
As The New York Times points out, this bodes well for the Washington Redskins football team, which had been granted trademark status for many years but was denied in 2014 because of the disparagement clause.
But more importantly it underpins the principle that government may not approve or disapprove of the content of a message for whatever excuse.