First Amendment protects right to federal registration of offensive trademarks that disparage a person or group

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits enforcement of a provision of the Lanham Act that purports to deny the benefits of trademark registration to names or marks that "disparage" a person or "bring [them] into contempt or disrepute." Matal v. Tam,2017 WL 2621315 (U.S. 2017); 15 U.S.C. §1502(a) (Lanham Act). The Court held that "this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend."

The case involved a band called "The Slants" who sought to reclaim an offensive term for persons of Asian descent. Because the Court's analysis focused on the idea that speech cannot be regulated because of its offensive content, it would appear that this ruling would equally apply to those who use a term about themselves (the members of the Slants are Asian-Americans) and those who use them about others (like the Washington National Football Team, the R-ins). It may well mean that the courts will overturn the denail of a trademark registration to the Washington team on this ground.

It is not clear what the ruling means for antidiscrimination law affecting public accommodations, housing, and employment, where offensive speech is regulated to ensure "full and equal enjoyment" of public accomodations and equal access to the marketplace. The Court failed to explain how the opinion would apply in that context.