by Dennis Crouch
In its decision in this trademark registration case, the Federal Circuit found the statutory prohibition against registering “disparaging marks” an unconstitutional governmental regulation of speech in violation of the First Amendment. (En banc decision). I noted in my December 2015 post that “there would be a good chance for Supreme Court review of the case if the government presses its position.”
The Supreme Court has now granted the USPTO’s petition for writ of certiorari asking:
Whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which provides that no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless, inter alia, it “[c]onsists of . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute” is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
In the case, Simon Tam is seeking to register a mark on his band name “The Slants.” The USPTO refused after finding that the mark is disparaging toward individuals of Asian ancestry.
Tam’s responsive brief was unusual in that he agreed that Certiorari should be granted. The brief also restated and expanded the question presented as follows:
1. Whether the disparagement clause bars the registration of respondent’s trademark.
2. Whether the disparagement clause is contrary to the First Amendment.
3. Whether the disparagement clause is unconstitutionally vague under the First and Fifth Amendments.
While the Federal Circuit majority opinion had agreed that the disparagement clause was contrary to the First Amendment, only a two-judge concurring opinion indicated that the clause is unconstitutionally vague. Thus, the reframing of the question presented here appears an attempt to offer alternative reasons for affirmance. The Supreme Court offered no indication as to which question is proper.
Congratulations to Ron Colemen for shepherding this case and Profs Volokh and Banner who apparently wrote the petition response.