The Washington Redskins’ battle over the legality of its trademarked name may finally be over, as the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that offensive trademarks are protected under the First Amendment.
The ruling came in a case brought by an Asian-American rock band called The Slants. The Slants’ lead singer, Simon Tam, argued that he had chosen the band’s name in order to reclaim the term and “drain its denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian persons.”
According to the Supreme Court’s opinion filing, Tam sought federal registration of the mark “THE SLANTS” but was denied the application under a Lanham Act provision prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” (15 U. S. C. §1052(a)).
The Washington Redskins lost the trademark on its name back in 2014 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office cancelled six federal trademark registrations, including the Washington Redskins. At the time, the Patent and Trademark office ruled the Redskins name was "disparaging to Native Americans," and as such could not be trademarked under federal law, which prohibits protection of offensive or disparaging language. That ruling was affirmed by a federal judge in 2015.
The Supreme Court, however, disagrees. Associate justice Samuel Alito delivered the court’s opinion, which concluded that the “disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause,” which had originally classified registered trademarks as government speech. Alito’s opinion stated that “contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech.”
“This Court exercises great caution in extending its government-speech precedents,” Alito wrote, “for if private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.”
The Washington Redskins did not have any official comment on the ruling as of this writing, but the decision likely sets the stage for the team to begin the process of having their trademark reinstated.