Justices say government can't refuse disparaging trademarks

In a concurring opinion, four of the justices led by Anthony Kennedy write that the ban on disparaging trademarks is "viewpoint discrimination" on the part of the government, but with perhaps an eye to ensuring that other grounds for refusing trademarks - confusion or dilution, for instance - don't fall by the wayside, they attempt to distinguish the Tam case and even the similar dispute concerning the Washington Redskins. The Slants had been denied trademark protection for their name under the Lanham Act. But then a majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said the law violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

Justice Elena Kagan asked whether the First Amendment rule that prohibits the government from discriminating against disfavored views applies to the trademark's ban on "bad" trademarks.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder says he's "thrilled" about the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the disparagement clause in trademark law.

The 71-year-old trademark law that bars disparaging terms infringes on free speech rights, the justices ruled unanimously 8-0.

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"We have said time and time again that the 'public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers, '" Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in the case of Matal vs Tam.

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. A federal appeals court in Richmond put the team's case on ice while The Slants went to the highest court in the land. The government may not "penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys", a majority of the court found.

Snyder has repeatedly insisted he will not change the team's name despite continuing objections by Native Americans.

He says he picked his band's moniker in an effort to reclaim a stereotype.

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"I am THRILLED!" he said in a statement Monday morning.

"The Supreme Court vindicated the team's position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or cancelling a trademark registration based on the government's opinion", Blatt said.

The office said the name was likely to disparage a significant number of Asian-Americans.

Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court after arguments were heard in the case and did not participate in Monday's decision.

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Tam's case pits supporters on one side who argue they are fighting for free speech rights, and opponents who warn a Slants victory will require government approval of all kinds of hateful racial slurs, including the N-word. The decision could destroy legal challenges to other controversial trademarks, such as the Washington Redskins football team. He sought to register the name with the trademark office.

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