U.S. top court finds law banning offensive trademarks unconstitutional

Mon Jun 19, 2017 7:39pm EDT
 
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By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a decision that could benefit the NFL's Washington Redskins, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a federal prohibition on disparaging trademarks as a constitutional violation in a major free speech ruling involving a band called The Slants.

The court ruled 8-0 in favor of the Portland, Oregon-based Asian-American dance rock band, which had been denied a trademark because the government deemed its name disparaging to people of Asian descent. The Slants challenged that rejection as a violation of free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, and the Supreme Court agreed.

The ruling likely paves the way for the Redskins to protect trademarks covering the team's name.

The National Football League team, which took the name Redskins in the 1930s, filed a legal challenge to a 2014 decision by a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tribunal canceling its trademarks as disparaging to Native Americans. A lower court put the Redskins' dispute on hold pending the outcome of the band's case.

Lisa Blatt, a lawyer representing the Redskins, told Reuters the team is thrilled with Monday's ruling because it resolves "the Redskins' long-standing dispute with the government."

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito did not mince words in ruling that the decades-old trademark provision is unconstitutional. "It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend," Alito wrote.

Band frontman Simon Tam has said he chose to call the band The Slants to reclaim a term some consider a derogatory reference to Asian people's eyes, and wear it as a "badge of pride." The band's lawyers argued that the government cannot use trademark law to impose burdens on free speech to protect listeners from offense.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed legal papers supporting the band, hailed the ruling as a major victory for the First Amendment. ACLU lawyer Lee Rowland said government efforts to protect minorities from disparagement instead hurt members of that very community, in this case the Asian-American band.   Continued...

 
Members of the Portland, Oregon-based Asian-American rock band The Slants (L-R) Tyler Chen, Ken Shima, Simon Tam, Joe X. Jiang pose in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 21, 2015 in a picture released by band representatives.  Anthony Pidgeon/Handout via Reuters