Justices say law on offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

Justices say government can't refuse disparaging trademarks

Justices say government can't refuse disparaging trademarks

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday, June 19, that the band can trademark its name, even though some people see it as racially disparaging.

The Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit against the United States Trademark and Patent Office, who sought to prevent the band from trademarking their name.

The case was being closely watched because the Washington Redskins had asked the court to take its case challenging the PTO's decision to cancel its trademark, but the court refused.

"The government defends free speech around the world because it knows when free speech is threatened, religious minorities suffer", said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm that says it has teamed with the government in the past to fight laws banning insulting or defaming religious speech.

The Supreme Court struck down part of a federal law that denies trademark protection of terms that disparage living or dead.

According to an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, "The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause".

Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism at the government's argument that trademarks are commercial speech that do not express ideas. The Lanham Act's disparagement clause placed an unconstitutional condition on those who consider the use of an edgy or taboo phrase to be part of their brand: either change your name or be denied the right to use it effectively. That court was waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on Matal v. Tam before it made its decision. Ultimately, however, the sentiment is similar that the government must be careful about interfering with free speech.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder has repeatedly said that he will not change the nickname despite the opposition.

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

"I am THRILLED!" he said in a statement Monday morning.

In the separate Redskins case, a trademark board in 2014 canceled the team's six trademarks at the request of Native American activists on grounds that the team name disparaged Native Americans.

Lisa Simpson, an intellectual property expert, characterized the Supreme Court's decision as a slippery slope. As Justice Alito noted in the court's opinion on the case, Tam maintained that naming the band after a slur was an attempt from a member of a marginalized community to reclaim a derogatory phrase used to oppress and strip it of its power.

A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The same is true for the Redskins, but the team did not want to lose the legal protections that go along with a registered trademark.

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