Justices say law on offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington

The Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit against the United States Trademark and Patent Office, who sought to prevent the band from trademarking their name.

The band's victory could be welcome news for the Washington Redskins, which has been waging its own legal fight over the team's name, which some people find offensive.

The Slants tried to trademark the name in 2011, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the request on the ground that the name disparages Asians.

The justices ruled Monday that a federal appeals court was wrong to consider the merits of Percy Hutton's claim that his trial judge gave jurors faulty instructions during sentencing. The court decided the ban on registering "scandalous, immoral, or disparaging remarks" violated the First Amendment.

In a unanimous judgment that splintered on its reasoning, the Supreme Court correctly held that the "disparagement clause" of the Lanham Act (the federal trademark law) violated the Constitution. "This Court exercises great caution in extending its government-speech precedents, 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 court said.

Lisa Blatt, a lawyer representing the Redskins, told Reuters the team is thrilled with Monday's ruling because it resolves "the Redskins' long-standing dispute with the government". But some say the government approval of trademarks confers more than a commercial benefit and suggests tacit government approval of the slurs.

Tam said the band was "beyond humbled and thrilled" with the ruling.

"It canceled the registration for the Washington Redskins in 2014 at the behest of some Native Americans who considered the name offensive".

But when the litigation of the word "redskins" is left to a group like the PTO, the resulting decisions will always say more about that body's own biases than anything else.

"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.

Alito was backed in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen Breyer. But they raised the bar for trademark denials so that names deemed to be offensive but not hateful can survive. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Government officials said the law did not infringe on free speech rights because the band was still free to use the name even without trademark protection. The decision could destroy legal challenges to other controversial trademarks, such as the Washington Redskins football team.

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