Case Briefs

Matal v. Tam

Case(s): Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017)

Simon Tam, the lead singer of the rock group “The Slants,” chose the band name in order to “reclaim” the term and drain its denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian individuals. Tam sought to register the “THE SLANTS” trademark, but the USPTO denied the application due to the Lanham Act provision prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” Tam unsuccessfully contested the denial of registration by way of the USPTO’s appeals process.

Federal Circuit Decisions

Tam appealed a final refusal from the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) to the Federal Circuit, which affirmed the TTAB’s determination. The Federal Circuit then reviewed the case en banc and found that the trademark office erred in refusing the trademark application and determined the disparagement clause facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and affirmed the Federal Circuit’s judgment, with Justice Alito writing for the majority on June 19, 2017 …

(a) The disparagement clause applies to marks that disparage the members of a racial or ethnic group. Tam’s view, that the clause applies only to natural or juristic persons, is refuted by the plain terms of the clause, which uses the word “persons.” A mark that disparages a “substantial” percentage of the members of a racial or ethnic group necessarily disparages many “persons,” namely, members of that group. Tam’s narrow reading also clashes with the breadth of the disparagement clause, which by its terms applies not just to “persons,” but also to “institutions” and “beliefs.” Had Congress wanted to confine the reach of the clause, it could have used the phrase “particular living individual,” which it used in neighboring s. 1052(c). Tam contends that his interpretation is supported by legislative history and by the USPTO’s practice for many years of registering marks that plainly denigrated certain groups. But an inquiry into the meaning of the statute’s text ceases when, as here, “the statutory language is unambiguous and the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.”

Even if resort to legislative history and early enforcement practice were appropriate, Tam has presented nothing showing a congressional intent to adopt his interpretation, and the USPTO’s practice in the years following the disparagement clause’s enactment is unenlightening.

(b) The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech. Because the “Free Speech Clause . . . does not regulate government speech,” Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the government is not required to maintain viewpoint neutrality on its own speech. 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 Federal Government does not dream up the trademarks registered by the USPTO. Except as required by s. 1052(a), an examiner may not reject a mark based on the viewpoint that it appears to express. If the mark meets the Lanham Act’s viewpoint-neutral requirements, registration is mandatory. And once a mark is registered, the USPTO is not authorized to remove it from the register unless a party moves for cancellation, the registration expires, or the Federal Trade Commission initiates proceedings based on certain grounds. It is thus far-fetched to suggest that the content of a registered mark is government speech, especially given the fact that if trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently. And none of this Court’s government-speech cases supports the idea that registered trademarks are government speech.

Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and dangerous extension of the government-speech doctrine, for other systems of government registration (such as copyright) could easily be characterized in the same way.