It is almost that time of year — football season is approaching and with the anticipation of tailgating and touchdowns comes, of course, talk of trademarks. For years, the Washington Redskins have been fighting battles regarding their REDSKINS trademark. The issues have created much controversy due to the purported negative connotation the REDSKINS term gives to Native American groups.
Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act prohibits registration of “disparaging” marks. A number of REDSKINS trademark registrations were challenged on this basis and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has agreed, cancelling several such registrations. In fact, for a while it looked like the Washington Redskins might be forced to lose all trademark rights to REDSKINS and even possibly change the team name.
However, the REDSKINS case raised the question of whether Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act violated the Constitution because it constituted a government restraint of free speech. That is, to what extent can the government pass substantive review on terms that are meant for use in the private sector for commercial purposes?
THE SLANTS, SCOTUS and Disparagement
Simon Tam is a musician and formed a band. About eight years ago he sought trademark registration for the band name, which is not uncommon. Here though, the trademark at issue was THE SLANTS. The mark was refused registration because SLANT was viewed as a disparaging term directed toward Asians. Mr. Tam challenged that refusal and it ultimately found its way to the Supreme Court.
On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Tam finding that Section 2(a) the disparagement clause of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional because it constituted viewpoint discrimination. Accordingly, the refusal to register THE SLANTS based on the government’s conclusion that the term was disparaging was improper.
The fate of the REDSKINS mark has been somewhat contingent on the outcome reached in Tam because the argument supporting cancellation of the REDSKINS trademarks was based on Section 2(a) in that REDSKINS was disparaging. With that section of the Lanham Act declared unconstitutional, the Washington Redskins have the opportunity to regain protection for the REDSKINS mark.
Thank you to our Summer Associate Madison Allen for her contributions to this post!
Photo courtesy of Keith Allison Under Flickr Creative Commons License