That’s what the Supreme Court just held this morning, in Matal v. Tam. The court was unanimous on the result and some basic principles, though split 4-4 (Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wasn’t yet on the court when the case was argued) on some details. I’ll blog more on the case throughout the day, but here are the core pillars on which the justices agreed:
1. By denying registration to trademarks that allegedly disparage certain kinds of groups, the federal trademark law (the Lanham Act) discriminates based on viewpoint:
Our cases use the term “viewpoint” discrimination in a broad sense, and in that sense, the disparagement clause discriminates on the bases of “viewpoint.” To be sure, the clause evenhandedly prohibits disparagement of all groups. It applies equally to marks that damn Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and socialists, and those arrayed on both sides of every possible issue. It denies registration to any mark that is offensive to a substantial percentage of the members of any group. But in the sense relevant here, that is viewpoint discrimination: Giving offense is a viewpoint.
We have said time and again that “the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” Street v. New York, 394 U. S. 576, 592 (1969). See also Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414 (1989) (“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable”) [more cases omitted] …
That’s from the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen G. Breyer; but a concurring opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, agreed:
[The Government argues] that the law is viewpoint neutral because it applies in equal measure to any trademark that demeans or offends. This misses the point. A subject that is first defined by content and then regulated or censored by mandating only one sort of comment is not viewpoint neutral. To prohibit all sides from criticizing their opponents makes a law more viewpoint based, not less so. … The logic of the Government’s rule is that a law would be viewpoint neutral even if it provided that public officials could be praised but not condemned. The First Amendment’s viewpoint neutrality principle protects more than the right to identify with a particular side. It protects the right to create and present arguments for particular positions in particular ways, as the speaker chooses. By mandating positivity, the law here might silence dissent and distort the marketplace of ideas.
The Government next suggests that the statute is viewpoint neutral because the disparagement clause applies to trademarks regardless of the applicant’s personal views or reasons for using the mark. Instead, registration is denied based on the expected reaction of the applicant’s audience. In this way, the argument goes, it cannot be said that Government is acting with hostility toward a particular point of view. For example, the Government does not dispute that respondent seeks to use his mark in a positive way. Indeed, respondent endeavors to use The Slants to supplant a racial epithet, using new insights, musical talents, and wry humor to make it a badge of pride. Respondent’s application was denied not because the Government thought his object was to demean or offend but because the Government thought his trademark would have that effect on at least some Asian-Americans.
The Government may not insulate a law from charges of viewpoint discrimination by tying censorship to the reaction of the speaker’s audience. The Court has suggested that viewpoint discrimination occurs when the government intends to suppress a speaker’s beliefs … but viewpoint discrimination need not take that form in every instance. The danger of viewpoint discrimination is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing.
What this means is that as Eugene Volokh points out, the government cannot
restrict trademark protections on something offensive, like the Washington Redskins. The Washington NFL team has already declared victory and is immediately pressing the Supreme Court for relief from the Patent Office.
The 4-4 part of the ruling deals with the scope: Alito, Thomas, Roberts and of all people, Justice Breyer
wanted very badly to say that the government could not weigh in on deeming commercial speech offensive at all
, which would have been the largest SC ruling in decades. It would have effectively reversed the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" precedent, rather that, the people themselves have to determine what commercial speech was unacceptable through the "discourse of regular democracy".
For now at least, the ruling is limited to what punitive actions the government can take through non-application of third-party patent protections. In the future, well, we could have a Citizen's United
-type ruling where commercial free speech is limited only by what corporate shareholders are willing to tolerate.