Last Monday the Supreme Court struck down a ban on a 71-year old trademark law in a ruling that is expected to benefit the Washington Redskins in their legal battle over the team name.
The victory comes for the Asian-American rock band called the Slants, as the justices ruled the law barring disparaging names infringes on free speech. The case was closely watched due to the impact it would have on the separate dispute involving the Redskins.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the trademark for the band’s name back in 2011 on the grounds that it disparages Asians. A Washington federal appeals court later said the law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional.
Similar arguments were made by the Washington Redskins after the trademark office canceled the team’s trademark in 2014, claiming the name offends American Natives. The team’s case was put on hold in a federal appeals court in Richmond while they waited on the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Slants’ case.
Justice Samuel Alito rejected arguments that trademarks are government speech instead of private speech in his opinion for the court. He also said trademarks are not immune from the First Amendment protection as part of a government program or subsidy.
Slants founder, Simon Tam, insists that he was not trying to be offensive, rather he was wanting to change a derisive term into a statement of pride.
The Redskins have faced decades of legal challenges from groups claiming the name is racist, while the Redskins contend their name honors the Natives. Redskins owner Dan Snyder has refused to change the name of the team, despite public pressure, claiming it “represents honor, respect, and pride.”
Government officials argued that the law did not infringe on free speech rights in the case of the Slants because the band was still free to use the name even without trademark protection. The same goes for the Redskins, with the exception that the team will lose the legal protections that go along with a trademarked name, such as the sale of counterfeit merchandise and working to pursue a brand development strategy.
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