I asked my former student Zachary Kasnetz to write this post on his forthcoming article explaining the Federal Circuit’s errors in its en banc Tam decision. A draft version of his article is available online: ssrn.com/abstract=2864016. – DC
By Zachary Kasnetz
I would like to thank Professor Crouch for this opportunity to share my views on the Federal Circuit’s decision in In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc), in advance of the Missouri Law Review’s publication of my article. This post discusses some of the arguments I make as to why the court erred in holding Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act facially unconstitutional.
Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act prohibits registration of any mark that “may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute.” 15 U.S.C. 1052(a). It has long been controversial and commentators have largely agreed that it is unconstitutional. See In re Tam, 808 F.3d at 1334 n.4 (citing commentary). Tam held: (1) Section 2(a) was a content-based and view-point based restriction on speech; (2) it regulated the expressive, not commercial aspects of Tam’s mark; (3) it actually regulated speech; (4) registration was not a subsidy or government speech; and (4) could not pass strict or intermediate scrutiny. The holding and reasoning are flawed regarding the numbers 1, 2, and 4.
First, the Court reasoned backwards. First, the court should have decided whether Section 2(a) actually regulated speech at all and then whether it was a government speech or a subsidy. If the answer to that question was no, then whether Section 2(a) was content and viewpoint-based and whether it impacted the commercial or expressive aspects of Tam’s mark would have been irrelevant. Government speech and subsidies are not “exempt” from First Amendment scrutiny as the majority claims: they don’t implicate the First Amendment at all because they do not abridge any speech. See Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 193 (1991); Pleasant Grove v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460, 467 (2008).
Second, Section 2(a) only impacts the commercial aspects of Tam’s speech because a trademark is “a form of commercial speech and nothing more.” In re Tam, 808 F.3d at 1376 (Reyna, J., dissenting) (quoting Friedman v. Rogers, 440 U.S. 1 (1979)). All benefits of registration are commercial in nature, i.e., they make it easier to enforce the mark. Registration has no impact on Tam’s ability to express any ideas or messages. Cf. Author’s League of Am. v. Oman, 790 F.2d 220, 223 (2d Cir. 1986). As Judge Reyna dryly pointed, the majority held that “Mr. Tam’s speech, which disparages those of Asian descent, is valuable political speech that the government may not regulate except to ban its use in commerce by everyone but Mr. Tam.” Id. at 1378. There is no First Amendment right to government assistance in preventing others from expressing ideas or views. Cf. Davenport v. Wash. Educ. Ass’n, 551 U.S. 177, 188-90 (2008).
Therefore, the only basis for the majority’s opinion is the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, under which the government may not condition an important benefit on the surrender of an important constitutional right, even if it could withhold the benefit entirely. The doctrine is notoriously incoherent and inconsistent in its application. Tam’s basic holding is that Section 2(a) is an unconstitutional condition because it is a content and viewpoint based regulation/restriction/burden on speech. But there’s no such thing as a content-based unconstitutional condition.
A condition’s constitutional permissibility turns on the relationship between the condition and the government program at issue. See, e.g., USAID v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2321, 2329 (2013). The more “germane”, i.e., reasonably related to the goals of program, a condition is, the more likely it is to be constitutional. See Sullivan, Unconstitutional Conditions, 102 Harv. L. Rev. 1413, 1420-21 (1989). Any condition on a government benefit or participation in a government program implicating the First Amendment necessarily draws content-based distinctions: the question is whether that distinction is reasonably related to the program’s goals. According to the majority, the goals of federal trademark law are (1) protecting the rights of mark holders and (2) preventing consumer deception and confusion. If we accept that this is correct, the constitutionality of Section 2(a) turns on its relation to those goals. The majority believes it is “completely untethered” those purposes. In re Tam, 808 F.3d at 1354. I disagree.
Trademarks allow consumers to quickly identify the source and quality of goods or services. Therefore, trademark law conditions registration on a mark meeting certain requirements, including that it not be disparaging. Certain kinds of marks are better at this than others, lying across the spectrum of distinctiveness from arbitrary or fanciful to generic. Given the massive amount of information bombarding consumers, I argue that marks communicating other information or messages are less effective. The government has an interest in ensuring that “the stream of commercial information flows cleanly as well as freely.” Va. Bd. of Pharmacy v. Va. Citizen’s Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 758, 771–72 (1976)). Disparaging marks, by definition, communicate more than the source and quality the good or service they attach to. By denying the benefits of federal registration, Section 2(a) mildly incentivizes the selection of more effective marks. Thus, it is reasonably related to trademark law’s goals. Moreover, it only likely affects the choice of marks: it is not trying to “leverage [a government benefit] to regulate speech outside of the program itself.” USAID v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., 133 S. Ct. at 2329 (2013).
Trademark law draws many distinctions between different marks based on their content. As a far as I know, the constitutionality of the ban on registering trademarks containing “the flag or coat of arms of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation,” 15 U.S.C. § 1052(b), has never been questioned. Nor has the ban on those containing “a name, portrait, or signature identifying a particular living individual . . , or the name, signature, or portrait of a deceased President of the United States during the life of his widow, . .” Id. at § 1052(c). The government has never been required to show that such marks would actually be confusing or insufficiently distinctive despite the fact that this provision obviously singles out a category of potential trademarks based solely on their content.
Does Section 2(a) Actually Impact Speech?
I am also extremely skeptical that denying registration to disparaging marks actually has a chilling effect on speech. The majority fears that Section 2(a) chills potential selection of disparaging marks, but the real issue isn’t whether trademark choice is being affected, but whether “ideas or viewpoints” will be suppressed. Simon & Schuster v. Members of N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105, 116 (1991). But trademarks are “commercial speech and nothing more.” Friedman v. Rogers, 447 U.S. at 562. Consider Tam. If he had known that there was a real possibility that he would have been unable to register THE SLANTS because it was disparaging he would have chosen not to create his music or would not have made music intended to express pride in his Asian heritage? I doubt it and I have not seen any evidence to support such a claim. Perhaps he would have chosen a different name for his band, but again I’m skeptical. Thus, Section 2(a) is “exceedingly unlikely” to suppress or chill expression of any ideas and viewpoints. See Lyng v. Int’l Union, UAW, 485 U.S. 360, 365 (1988).
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The author is an Associate at Growe Eisen Karlen Eilerts in St. Louis. He earned his J.D. from the University of Missouri in May 2016 and his B.A. from the University of Maryland in 2012.
 Assuming arguendo, that I am wrong about numbers 1, 2, and 4, I agree that Section 2(a) could not pass strict or intermediate scrutiny. I also agree that placement on the register does not turn Tam’s purportedly disparaging message into government speech.