Supreme Court: Offensive Speech May be Trademarked

Congress’s 70-year-old ban on registering disparaging terms struck down on free-speech grounds

tim armstrongGuest Contributor: Cincinnati Law Professor Tim Armstrong

An important new Supreme Court decision gives private parties the right to receive federal trademark registration of a term that disparages racial or ethnic minority groups. In Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court ruled that part of the federal trademark statute is unconstitutional to the extent that it forbids federal trademark registration for terms “which may disparage … persons, living or dead … or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” To forbid registration of disparaging terms as trademarks, the Court unanimously agreed, violates registrants’ First Amendment rights to free expression even of “ideas that offend.”

At the heart of this case is bass player Simon Tam, a member of a quartet of Asian-American musicians who describe their style as “Chinatown dance rock.” The band chose to name itself “The Slants,” in what the Court described as an attempt to “reclaim … a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent …. and drain its denigrating force.” Continue reading “Supreme Court: Offensive Speech May be Trademarked”