U.S. Supreme Court blocks law banning offensive trademarks

By Allen Cone   |   June 19, 2017 at 12:06 PM
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June 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a portion of federal law that prevents offensive trademarks, a ruling that could benefit the Washington Redskins in the use of their nickname.

The 71-year-old trademark law that bars disparaging terms infringes on free speech rights, the justices ruled unanimously 8-0.

The ruling specifically involves Simon Tam, an Asian-American musician and political activist, whose rock band was named "The Slants" -- to take back a term that once was an insult. He unsuccessfully attempted to register the name with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office because the agency said it disparages Asians. After also losing in lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the federal circuit in Washington ruled 9-3 last year that the law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional.

In 2014, the trademarks office also canceled the Redskins trademark because the agency said it offends American Indians. A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., delayed making a ruling while waiting for the Supreme Court to rule in the Slants case.

"Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and dangerous extension of the government-speech doctrine, for other systems of government registration [such as copyright] could easily be characterized in the same way," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

The justices still allow the office some discretion.

"It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend," Alito wrote.

Alito was backed in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. New Justice Neil Gorsuch didn't take part in the case because it was argued before he joined the court.

Kennedy wrote: "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 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."

The liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce backed the Slants.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder has refused to change the team's name, saying on ESPN's Outside the Lines in 2014 it "represents honor, respect and pride.'' Indian groups say the name is racist.

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