In 2010, the Oregon-based, Asian-American band had its application for a trademark in the name The Slants rejected by the US Patent and Trademark Office. The denial was based on a statute in the 1946 Lanham Act prohibiting registration of marks “which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” In other words, the USPTO rejected The Slants because the word slant can be used as a pejorative to disparage Asian people, which is precisely why the band adopted the name in the first place. (Readers may have seen headlines stating that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the trademark status of the much-debated offensiveness of the Washington Redskins name; but in fact, the Redskins matter is settled by virtue of the holding in this case Matal v. Tam.)
When artists or other speakers, who represent particular ethnic groups, reclaim disparaging terms, it usually serves as a very powerful way to diminish the harmful force of the words themselves. For instance, as important as it is to respect the serious history of the ultimate pejorative for African Americans, the way in which a comedian like Richard Pryor weaponized the N-Word* (or for that matter how Mel Brooks satirized it in Blazing Saddles) cannot be overstated for the capacity of those expressions to alleviate social barriers by transposing genuine animosity into self-reflective satire.
The Slants are presumably following in this tradition, which does not mean that some people still won’t be offended by the name; but as Monday’s Supreme Court ruling affirms, an agency like the PTO may not consider the prospect of offense when registering a trademark without violating the First Amendment. As a result of this case, the disparagement clause (§1052(a)), which has been part of the Lanham Act since its passage 71 years ago, has now been declared unconstitutional. Whether this has further implications for other clauses in the act remains to be seen.
The outcome in Tam has reasonably been viewed as a First Amendment victory, a reminder that the government has no business making judgments about private speech, and also a recognition that a trademark can absolutely be a form of expressive speech. In past cases, the courts have held that the denial of a trademark is not a violation of speech because the lack of registration does not prevent a party from using a desired mark as expression. A key difference in this case is that the government sought to argue that registering trademarks is analogous to government subsidies (e.g. grants from the NEA), and, therefore, the reistration of trademarks is a form of government speech. All eight justices disagreed (Justice Gorsuch was not part of the ruling).
In circumstances like federal or state grants, the parties responsible for administering those subsidies may impose judgments regarding potential disparagement; and in fact, we would generally hope that they do so. It is also not a violation of law for the government to spend public dollars to communicate a one-sided message, like an anti-drug or consumer safety campaign. In fact the Court observes in this decision that demanding neutrality of government in speech would render it dysfunctional. And although most of us wouldn’t want to see public dollars spent with the purpose of ridiculing or provoking bigotry against a particular race, culture, religion, nationality, etc., it cannot be denied that government officials and agencies have done all of these things at various times in our history.
Regardless, the PTO’s argument in Tam that the registration of a trademark is tantamount to government speech by way of subsidy was first rejected by the District Court and then upheld by the Supreme Court. From the decision …
“Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech.… for if private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.”
Or as it was stated in a slightly more amusing fashion …
“It is thus farfetched to suggest that the content of a registered mark is government speech, especially given the fact that if trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.”
There’s probably a website somewhere insisting that the government is speaking in the coded language of Cheetos®, Tide®, and Red Bull®; but tinfoil hats aside, the decision in this case may have broader implications for other IP, particularly copyright. Specifically, the Court seems to have indirectly weighed in on a somewhat novel proposal from the libertarian right that intellectual property is a government subsidy. In fact, the District Court in this case, made a direct comparison to copyright law in stating, “…the government would be free, under this logic, to prohibit the copyright registration of any work deemed immoral, scandalous, or disparaging to others.”
In other words, arguing that the registration of trademarks is a form of government speech through subsidy would, by extension, empower the government to censor speech through the copyright registration process. Nevertheless, it has been in vogue for a few years now to describe copyright as a government-granted subsidy to authors; and then, by logic of the straw man, to assail the regime as a “federal regulation” that is holding back “innovation.” It is an idea that appears to convene allies among the anti-corporate left and the anti-regulatory right; and lately, when I see that kind of agreement between ideological opposites, I tend not to conclude “strange bedfellows” so much as to assume that both sides are just wildly misinformed and not considering the implications of their position.
Of course, this “government subsidy” idea goes back to that larger debate over IP as natural right vs. IP as a purely utilitarian legal framework, a subject discussed in this post. For now, though, in upholding Simon Tam and his friends’ right to trademark their band name (offensive or not to some people), the Supreme Court has provided an important lesson in the nature of American free speech and placed the government in its proper role as neutral provider of public services available to all citizens on equal terms.
See also: Terry Hart’s Copyhype post from 2016.
*On a side note, the rap band N.W.A trademarked its name.