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Law School Case Brief

Matal v. Tam - 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017)

Rule:

15 U.S.C.S. § 1052(a) 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.

Facts:

Simon Tam, lead singer of the rock group “The Slants,” chose this moniker in order to “reclaim” the term and drain its denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian persons. Tam sought federal registration of the mark “THE SLANTS.” The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application under a Lanham Act provision prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” Tam contested the denial of registration through the administrative appeals process to no avail. He then took the case to federal court, where the en banc Federal Circuit ultimately found the disparagement clause facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

Issue:

Was the disparagement clause facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court held that trademarks are private, not government, speech. It explained that the registration of trademarks that disparaged or brought into contempt or disrepute any person, living or dead, violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it offended a bedrock First Amendment principle that speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend. The PTO violated the free speech rights of the lead singer of the rock group, “The Slants,” when it found that the mark could not be registered on the principal register because it was used as a derogatory term for Asian persons.

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