U.S. Supreme Court Holds Prohibition on Disparaging Trademarks Unconstitutional

by Jery Payne

A while back I wrote about event signs, license plates, and government speech. That post covered Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Texas could deny an application for special license plates because it didn’t like the message expressed on the plates. This bit of content discrimination did not fall afoul of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because the Court decided that the content of special license plates is government speech.

Now the Court has ruled on another case where the federal government discriminated based on content. In this case involving trademark registration, the government relied heavily on the Walker case, arguing this bit of content discrimination is also government speech. But the Court struck down the law anyway.

Although people are calling it the “Slants case,” the actual case name is “Matal v. Tam.” The Slants are a pop-rock band whose members are of East Asian descent, so the band chose the name to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about people of East Asian ethnicity. The band filed for trademark registration of the band name, “Slants.”

By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54532298

Federal law, however, forbids the registration of a trademark that “[c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute….” The term “slants” has been used as a disparaging term for East Asians, so the trademark examiner refused to register the trademark.

The band took the examiner to court. The case wended its way to the Supreme Court, where the government defended the statute based on the Walker decision. They argued that trademark registration is government speech. And you can see why because the two cases have a lot in common. The messages in both cases are:

(1) Benefiting from a government program;

(2) Intended for private use, which often means for commercial use;

(3) Placed on privately owned property; and

(4) Originating from private citizens.

Despite coming from private citizens, the court held in Walker that the messages on special license plates are government speech. But when you take seriously the notion that these messages come from the government, the messages conveyed are often contradictory and frequently weird or even nonsensical. The license plates in the Walker case included the state of Texas celebrating Oklahoma football, advising that you can “get it sold” with RE/MAX, or saying “I’d rather be golfing.” Can a state government golf?

The Court pointed out in the Matal case that considering trademarks government speech is just as weird:

[W]hat does the Government have in mind when it advises Americans to “make.believe” (Sony), “Think different” (Apple), or “Have it your way” (Burger King)?

The Matal case, like the Walker case, involves speech that comes from a private citizen but seeks to benefit from a government program. In other words, the facts of both cases exist in a gray area between what is clearly government speech that doesn’t fall under the Free Speech Clause and what is clearly private speech that does fall under the Free Speech Clause. In the Matal case, the Court explained the difference:

This brings us to the case on which the Government relies most heavily, Walker, which likely marks the outer bounds of the government-speech doctrine. Holding that the messages on Texas specialty license plates are government speech, the Walker Court cited three[1] factors … First, license plates have long been used by the States to convey state messages. … Second, license plates ‘are often closely identified in the public mind’ with the State, since they are manufactured and owned by the State, generally designed by the State, and serve as a form of ‘government ID.’ … [N]one of these factors are present in this case.

So the Court decided that (1) Walker “likely marks the outer bounds of the government-speech doctrine,” (2) the mere fact that a message may benefit from a government program does not make it government speech, and (3) the messages must be closely identified with the state “in the public mind” to constitute government speech. Trademarks are meant to identify businesses, and most people think of a business, not a government, when they see a trademark; there isn’t the same likelihood that people will think the government is sending the message.

In deciding these cases, the Court shrunk the area of uncertainty between government speech and private speech. The license-plate case had the potential to take a large bite out of First Amendment protections. Copyright law also provides a government benefit to private speech, and the government relied heavily on this idea in the Matal case. Copyright applies to virtually all books, magazines, and blogs. If the Court had determined that simply granting a benefit gives the government the ability to regulate content, then the government could regulate the content of most writings. But instead, the Court made it clear that merely bestowing a government benefit on a “speaker” does not give the government the ability to regulate the content of the speech.

[1] The third factor isn’t relevant to this article.