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March 24 2018, 11:43 | Perry Erickson
In a win for free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that trademarks can not be denied simply because a name is deemed offensive.
The Slants' frontman, Simon Tam, filed a lawsuit after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office kept the band from registering its name and rejected its appeal, citing the Lanham Act, which prohibits any trademark that could "disparage. or bring. into contemp [t] or disrepute" any "persons, living or dead", as the court states.
In addition to Washington's football team, The Slants have found a disparate group of advocates in their corner, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which called today's ruing a victory for the First Amendment.
A federal appeals court had sided with the band, ruling that the law violates the First Amendment.
During oral argument in January, several justices said provocative names are chosen by individuals and organizations to express their views or as advertising.
The 71-year-old trademark law that bars disparaging terms infringes on free speech rights, the justices ruled unanimously 8-0.
"Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend", Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in his opinion for the court. He also targeted KNBC-TV and other stations over use of the name on air. A federal appeals court in Richmond put the team's case on ice while The Slants went to the highest court in the land. But some say the government approval of trademarks confers more than a commercial benefit and suggests tacit government approval of the slurs.
The band has said it wanted to reclaim what is often seen as a slur. Snyder issued a quick statement after Monday's decision: "I am THRILLED".
"The Supreme Court vindicated the team's position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or cancelling a trademark registration based on the government's opinion", Blatt said.
Lisa Simpson, an intellectual property expert, characterized the Supreme Court's decision as a slippery slope.
In June 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled six federal trademark registrations for the Redskins, saying the nickname is "disparaging to Native Americans" and can not be trademarked under federal law that prohibits trademark protection on offensive or disparaging language. New Justice Neil Gorsuch didn't take part in the case because it was argued before he joined the court. Those bystanders, in this case, would be the marginalized groups who have been trying to get their own trademarks registered.
The outcome is likely to affect the legal case of the Washington Redskins, whose trademark registration was revoked in 2014 under the same disparagement clause. The protections include blocking the sale of counterfeit merchandise and working to pursue a brand development strategy.