You might not know this, but there’s a federal trademark law that essentially bans potentially offensive names. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday that the law is, in fact, unconstitutional. It was a unanimous decision.
SCOTUS ruled in favor of the Asian-American band called “The Slants.” The entire case started after the federal government denied the band a trademark because of its “offensive” name.
After an excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years, we’re beyond humbled and thrilled to have… https://t.co/O5ZNUfAy7Q
— The Slants (@theslants) June 19, 2017
The founder of the band said he never intended the band name to offend or disparage anyone. Instead, he wanted to “reclaim” the slur and turn it into a positive.
The band countered that the 70-year-old law at issue violates free-speech rights — and Justice Samuel Alito, in the court’s opinion, agreed.
“The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates. If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social ‘volatility,’ free speech would be endangered,” he wrote.
This ruling extends beyond this specific case. SCOTUS essentially said the U.S. government cannot refuse to register trademarks it considers potentially offensive, which should come as a HUGE relief to the Washington Redskins.
Alito cautioned in his opinion that the government still “has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend.”
But he suggested the clause in question was too sweeping: “The clause reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group, or institution. It applies to trademarks like the following: ‘Down with racists,’ ‘Down with sexists,’ ‘Down with homophobes.’ It is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause. In this way, it goes much further than is necessary to serve the interest asserted.”
It’s a good day for the First Amendment.