Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling regarding Confederate-flag license plates isn’t the last word on First Amendment protection for “offensive” speech. Indeed, it doesn’t even resolve all the issues related to government-insinuated expression. One case working its way through the lower courts regarding a controversial trademark – but not this one! – illustrates some of the pitfalls inherent in allowing the government to act as censor, for whatever reason.
A musician named Simon Tam wanted to “take back” and “own” what had previously been used as an ethnic slur by calling his Asian-American rock band “The Slants.” The Patent and Trademark Office found that this trademark was disparaging to Asians, however, so refused to register it under § 2(a) of the Lanham Act. This provision says, among other things, that the PTO may refuse to register a trademark that “[c]onsists of … matter which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
This refusal to register the trademark was affirmed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. But then the entire Federal Circuit—without being asked!—decided to erase that decision and consider whether § 2(a), or at least its application here, violates the First Amendment.