Justices Strike Down Law Banning Disparaging Trademarks

WASHINGTON — In a decision likely to bolster the Washington Redskins’ efforts to protect their trademarks, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the government may not refuse to register potentially offensive names. A law denying protection to disparaging trademarks, the court said, violated the First Amendment.

The decision was unanimous, but the justices were divided on the reasoning.

The decision, concerning an Asian-American dance-rock band called the Slants, was viewed by a lawyer for the Washington Redskins as a strong indication that the football team will win its fight to retain federal trademark protection.

Lisa S. Blatt, a lawyer for the team, said the decision “resolves the Redskins’ longstanding dispute with the government.”

“The Supreme Court vindicated the team’s position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or canceling a trademark registration based on the government’s opinion,” she said.

The law at issue in both cases denies federal trademark protection to messages that may disparage people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.”

Four justices said the law could not withstand even the fairly relaxed judicial scrutiny that the Supreme Court applies to commercial speech. Those justices rejected the two government interests that the law was said to advance: protecting disadvantaged groups from demeaning messages and the orderly flow of commerce.

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