Members of the Asian-American rock band The Slants have the right to call themselves by a disparaging name, the Supreme Court says, in a ruling that could have broad impact on how the First Amendment is applied in other trademark cases.
The law used by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to prevent the National Football League team from registering trademarks in and relating to the word "Redskins" and the logos used by the team was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
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 American Civil Liberties Union, which filed legal papers supporting the band, hailed the ruling as a major victory for the First Amendment. A federal appeals court in Washington later said the law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional.
The band countered that the 70-year-old law at issue violates free-speech rights.
Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism at the government's argument that trademarks are commercial speech that do not express ideas.
In an email, Tam rejected the notion that upholding the gutted provision of the Lanham Act would hamper the Redskins' efforts to keep their name.
The NFL team's appeal has not yet been heard by a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. Ultimately, however, the sentiment is similar that the government must be careful about interfering with free speech.
Despite intense public pressure to change the name, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has refused, saying in the past that it "represents honour, respect and pride" for Native Americans. Alito also said trademarks are not immune from First Amendment protection as part of a government program or subsidy.
The team's name itself is not at stake, but if the trademark is canceled, the name becomes less valuable because the owners would struggle to enforce their trademark against anyone who wanted to use the name or Indian logo on their own merchandise.
"I am THRILLED", Snyder told the AP.
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.
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.
New high court Justice Neil Gorsuch didn't take part in the case.
Trademarks, even ones that may offend many people-of which plenty are registered by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)-are private speech, which the First Amendment prevents the government from censoring.
The outcome is likely to affect the legal case of the Washington Redskins, whose trademark registration was revoked in 2014 under the same disparagement clause.