In a decision that could benefit the NFL's Washington Redskins, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a federal prohibition on disparaging trademarks as a constitutional violation in a major free speech ruling involving a band called The Slants.
The ruling is a victory for Simon Tam, an Asian-American musician and political activist who named his rock band "The Slants" in an attempt to take back a term that once directed as an insult.
The band filed a lawsuit after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected the band's trademark registration, citin the Lanham Act, which prohibits any trademark that could "disparage ... or bring ... into contemp [t] or disrepute" any "persons, living or dead", according to NPR.
The ruling strikes down a 1946 measure that barred federal officials from putting disparaging trademarks on a government registry.
"The government defends free speech around the world because it knows when free speech is threatened, religious minorities suffer", said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm that says it has teamed with the government in the past to fight laws banning insulting or defaming religious speech.
In their decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's opinion.
In its 39-page decision announced by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled that the intent of the trademark rule was not to "cleanse commercial speech of any expression likely to cause offense".
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Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism at the government's argument that trademarks are commercial speech that do not express ideas. That case, before a federal appeals court in Richmond, had been on hold while the Supreme Court considered the Slants case.
"Fortunately, today's opinion prevents the kind of absurd outcome that results when the government plays speech police", Rowland said.
Snyder has repeatedly insisted he will not change the team's name despite continuing objections by Native Americans.
The case essentially lets the Washington Redskins use their nickname and to continue profiting from the name as they had been fighting with the Trademark Office over its use.
"I am THRILLED", Snyder told the AP. Alito also said trademarks are not immune from First Amendment protection as part of a government program or subsidy.
The ruling means offensive trademarks can no longer be denied, even for names that intend to disparage individuals or groups of people, said Megan Carpenter, dean at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and an expert on trademark law.
Redskins attorney Lisa Blatt said the court's decision effectively resolves the Redskins' longstanding dispute with the government. The decision could destroy legal challenges to other controversial trademarks, such as the Washington Redskins football team. Those bystanders, in this case, would be the marginalized groups who have been trying to get their own trademarks registered. The protections include blocking the sale of counterfeit merchandise and working to pursue a brand development strategy.