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.
A new Supreme Court decision-Matal v. Tam-could restore federal protections to trademarks of the Washington Redskins NFL team but would not shield it if the FCC concluded the name was a racial slur. He unsuccessfully attempted to register the name with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office because the agency said it disparages Asians.
The four more "conservative" justices, led by Justice Alito, explained why trademarks don't constitute a subsidy or other type of government program (within which the government can regulate speech), and that the "disparagement clause" doesn't even survive the more deferential scrutiny that courts give "commercial" speech. The justices, who heard arguments on the case in January, agreed unanimously that the act violated the First Amendment's free speech provision.
When the government grants a trademark to a business owner, the owner gains the exclusive legal right to use the name on products and merchandise such as T-shirts. That case, before a federal appeals court in Richmond, had been on hold while the Supreme Court considered the Slants case.
But the Federal Circuit, ruling on the Slants' case in December 2015, overturned that precedent, declaring that the rule penalized unpopular speech by denying the substantial benefits of a trademark registration.
Snyder has repeatedly insisted he will not change the team's name despite continuing objections by Native Americans.
Tam said the band was "beyond humbled and thrilled" with the ruling.
"I am THRILLED!" he said in a statement Monday morning.
The Redskins made similar arguments after the trademark office ruled in 2014 that the name offends American Indians and canceled the team's trademark.
Redskins attorney Lisa Blatt said in a statement that the team feels "vindicated" by the ruling.
In a filing Monday, the Justice Department defended the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's decision previous year to strip the team of protections. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The band's lawyers argued that the government can not use trademark law to impose burdens on free speech to protect listeners from offense.
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.