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Supreme Court: Feds Cannot Block Trademarks Considered Offensive

by Pete Williams /
Washington Redskins helmetsEzra Shaw / Getty Images

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The federal government cannot refuse to grant protection to trademarks that some consider offensive, the U.S. Supreme court ruled Monday.

The decision is a victory for members of an Asian-American rock band who call themselves "The Slants." Organizer Simon Tam said the name is intended "to take on stereotypes that people have about us, like the slanted eyes, and own them."

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused in 2011 to grant the name government protection, citing a federal law that forbids issuing trademarks that may disparage people "or bring them into contempt or disrepute."

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But in a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court said that law violates free expression.

The ruling is also a boost for the Washington Redskins of the NFL, because it will undoubtedly require the government to restore the trademark protection taken away from the team in 2014 after a finding that it was offensive to Native Americans.

Tam sought to register "The Slants" as a federally protected trademark shortly after putting the band together.

"It could be our slant on life, of what it's like to be Asian-Americans, our perspective. And then at the same time we could address this false stereotype," he said

After a government examiner rejected it, explaining that it would disparage persons of Asian descent, Tam sued.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears trademark cases, ruled that making decisions about which trademarks might be disparaging amounts to improper viewpoint discrimination by the government, "in order to stifle the use of certain disfavored messages."

The Supreme Court decision upheld that ruling.

Therefore, the court ruled, the disparagement part of the trademark law, a provision in effect since 1946, is unconstitutional. The Obama Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, hoping to salvage the federal law.

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