Kelly Brandenburg, MJLST Staffer
The Lanham Act, which is the federal statute that governs trademarks, had a disparagement clause, that prohibited the registration of a trademark “which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” This provision has been the focal issue in several cases over the years, but was finally brought up to the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) which decided that the clause was unconstitutional.. In that case, Matal v. Tam, an Asian-American dance-rock band with the name “The Slants” was originally denied trademark protection on their name because “slant” is a derogatory term for people of Asian descent. In the end, the Court found the disparagement clause violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The Court said the clause violated the basic principle of the First Amendment that “speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”
This decision had a significant impact on a well-known case involving the Washington Redskins. The team had six trademarks that were cancelled by the Trademark Office in 2014, but after the Matal decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated that prior decision since the disparagement clause was the basis for the Native American’s argument to revoke the Redskin registrations.
Currently, there is a case awaiting a Supreme Court hearing that discusses a closely related topic. In re Brunetti involves a trademark for the word “Fuct,” which is the name of a clothing brand. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found the word to be “vulgar,” which violates the immoral or scandalous provision of the same statute that was at issue in Matal. The case was appealed and the Federal Circuit upheld the rejection of the registration. The ruling in Matal was discussed as an argument for the immoral or scandalous clause being unconstitutional, but the Court decided the case without addressing the constitutionality of the clause; instead, it determined that the word “impermissibly discriminates based on content in violation of the First Amendment,” and is therefore not registerable. However, SCOTUS granted certiorari in the case and depending on how the Court defines the word, it will potentially have to address the constitutionality of the immoral or scandalous provision. An argument was made at the Federal Circuit that the immoral or scandalous clause would be constitutional because, unlike the disparagement clause, this clause is “viewpoint neutral.” This argument was not addressed by the Federal Circuit, but could potentially be addressed in the upcoming SCOTUS hearing. If so, will SCOTUS find enough of a difference between the disparagement clause and the immoral or scandalous clause to consider it constitutional, or will the same free speech issues be present? The oral argument is scheduled for April 15, 2019, so stay tuned!