This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated ruling in the Lee v. Tam (now designated Matal v. Tam) trademark dispute involving the rock band, The Slants. As detailed in an earlier blog post, the legal issue faced by the Supreme Court was whether section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which bars the registration of disparaging trademarks, is constitutional.
Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court, which affirmed 8-0 the Federal Circuit’s prior determination that the disparaging trademark ban is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause. In reaching that conclusion, Justice Alito explained that trademarks constitute private speech, not government speech as the government had argued. As Justice Alito pointedly and simply stated, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” Justice Alito’s analysis, other aspects of his opinion joined by a smaller number of justices, and two concurring opinions can be read here.
As noted in an earlier blog post, although the Supreme Court decided to hear the Tam case last year, it decided not to hear the Washington Redskins’ related trademark dispute described in another earlier blog post. It now seems that the Supreme Court’s decision with respect to The Slants will allow the Washington Redskins to keep their federally-registered trademarks in the Redskins name, despite the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s prior cancellation of a number of those trademarks. More broadly, the outcome of the Tam case may entitle any trademark registrant to invoke the First Amendment’s free speech clause to register disparaging or offensive trademarks.