US appeals court says government cannot censor offensive trademarks
A US appeals court on Tuesday struck down a provision of a federal law that barred the registration of offensive trademarks because it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., vacates the refusal by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register the name of the Asian-American rock band, The Slants. It could also affect the decision by the agency to cancel the trademarks of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins.
“We recognize that invalidating this provision may lead to the wider registration of marks that offend vulnerable communities,” Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore said in the opinion on behalf of the 12 judges who took part in hearing the case.
“Whatever our personal feelings about the mark at issue here, or other disparaging marks, the First Amendment forbids government regulators to deny registration because they find the speech likely to offend others,” she wrote.
The Portland, Oregon-based band, which plays what it calls “Chinatown dance rock,” appealed because the trademark agency had rejected its name for a trademark twice since 2010 on the grounds that it disparages Asians.
Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Slants front man Simon Tam argued the band adopted the name as a way to reclaim the racial slur and should be allowed an official trademark.
In April, a three-judge Federal Circuit panel upheld the agency’s rejection, but the court then vacated that decision in order to tackle the prickly constitutional question.
Tuesday’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional now sends the case back to the Patent and Trademark Office for further proceedings.
Interest in the case is high because the more high-profile Redskins case is also currently on appeal at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and James Dalgleish)