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The SLANTS Trademark Will Play One More Gig: U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Constitutionality of Ban on Disparaging Trademarks

The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will review whether the U.S. Trademark Office can deny registration of offensive trademarks or whether such prohibition violates the First Amendment. The dispute affects the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibits registration of such marks. The case originated in 2013 following the Office’s refusal to register THE SLANTS as a mark for an Oregon rock band on grounds that it was a derogatory slang phrase for people of Asian descent.  Since its enactment 70 years ago, the Lanham Act has prohibited the registration of any mark that may “disparage” a person. The full panel of the Federal Circuit declared this provision unconstitutional in December 2015 in a decision that spawned five opinions. That Court’s majority opinion recognized that although many of the marks banned under the statute as disparaging “convey hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities, … the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech.” The opinion concluded that “[t]he government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks” and struck down the ban. The Supreme Court will directly address the constitutionality of banning the registration of “disparaging” marks.

The Supreme Court has not yet taken any action in the higher profile dispute over the Washington REDSKINS trademark, which is also at issue under the same Section 2(a) provision. Although the Redskins case is still pending before the Fourth Circuit,  the football team is  seeking to skip this intermediate appeal and join its case with the SLANTS case  before the Supreme Court given the analogous legal arguments between the two cases.

We will continue to follow the cases as briefing continues throughout the fall. Stay tuned for further updates.

Previous Mintz coverage of the SLANTS and REDSKINS trademark cases can be found here:

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Susan Neuberger Weller manages the Trademark & Copyright Practice at Mintz. Susan assists clients with securing and protecting IP assets across the globe. She's worked with clients in a variety of industries, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, software, electronics, and entertainment.