Wednesday, January 18, 2017
The Court heard oral arguments in Lee v. Tam involving the constitutionality of the denial of trademark registration to a band called "The Slants" on the ground that the mark would be disparaging. Recall that the en banc Federal Circuit held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. The en banc majority found that the disparagement provision constituted viewpoint discrimination and failed strict scrutiny.
However, like so many First Amendment controversies, the case involves a contest between doctrines, as today's oral argument illustrated and as we discussed in our case preview.
For example, it is unclear whether the First Amendment is applicable at all. At issue is whether the band can register this specific trademark, as opposed to whether or not the band can use the name or even whether the band could sue others who used the name for unfair competition. Perhaps the trademark is actually government speech, a prospect that Justice Ginsburg surfaced with an allusion to Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, the confederate flag license plate case, by distinguishing between the license plate (which the government continues to own and which the car driver must affix) and the trademark symbol (which the government does not "own" and the registrant can use or not).
Or perhaps, even if the First Amendment does apply, the analysis should be more akin to a one involving a subsidy, as Malcolm Stewart, Deputy Solicitor General, argued, analogizing to National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (1998), in which the Court found constitutional a requirement that "general standards of decency" be considered.
Or perhaps the "trademark" is best analyzed under a limited forum analysis, as Stewart also argued, although Chief Justice Roberts seemed to disagree that the "entire trademark program" could be properly considered limited. Additionally, Justice Kennedy later questioned the appropriateness of a forum hypothetical:
STEWART: . . . . Another example I would give, and it's a hypothetical example, but at least I have a strong instinct as to how the --the case should be decided. Suppose at a public university the --the school set aside a particular room where students could post messages on topics that were of interest or concern to them as a way of promoting debate in a nonconfrontational way, and the school said, just two ground rules: No racial epithets and no personal attacks on any other members of the school community.
It --it would seem extraordinary to say that's a viewpoint-based distinction that can't stand because you're allowed to say complimentary things about your fellow students
JUSTICE KENNEDY: So --so the government is the omnipresent schoolteacher? I mean, is that what you're saying?
JUSTICE KENNEDY: The government's a schoolteacher?
STEWART: No. Again, that analysis would apply only if the public school was setting aside a room in its own facility. Clearly, if the government attempted more broadly to restrict disparaging speech by students or others rather than simply to limit the terms under which a forum for communication could be made available, that would involve entirely different questions.
Yet Justice Kennedy seemed equally displeased with the notion that "trademark law is just like a public park" - - - "the classic example of where you can say anything you want. The attorney for The Slants seemed to approve of this analogy, but Justice Kagan found it troublesome:
JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, Mr. Connell, this can't be right, because think of all the other things, the other --I mean, I'll call them content distinctions because they are --that trademark law just makes. I mean, Section 2 prohibits the registration of any mark that's falsely suggestive of a connection with persons likely to cause confusion, descriptive, misdescriptive, functional, a geographic indication for wine or spirits, government insignia, a living person's name, portrait, or signature. You couldn't make any of those distinctions in a --in a --in a public park, and yet, of course, you can make them in trademark law, can't you?
Or perhaps the benefit/forum analysis in combination might be a proper guide. Chief Justice Roberts, questioning the attorney for the respondent, raised this possibility again, in a hypothetical about the government putting on a Shakespeare festival in which presentations disparaging Shakespeare would be excluded. This also led to Justice Ginsburg analogizing to Pacifica v. FCC, which Justice Breyer noted might be apt as a permissible time, place, and manner regulation: The Slants can use the words in the entire universe, except as a trademark. Eventually, Justice Sotomoyor took the argument to an interesting turn:
SOTOMAYOR: . . . . But your argument earlier was that if someone slanders or libels an individual by saying --Trump before he was a public figure --Trump is a thief and that becomes their trademark, that even if they go to court and prove that that's a libel or a slander, that trademark would still exist and would be capable of use because otherwise canceling it would be an abridgement of the First Amendment?
MR. CONNELL: I believe that's correct.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: That makes no sense.
Finally, the relevance of commercial speech surfaced, although not particularly convincing. The attorney for The Slants referred to the commercial vs. the noncommercial aspects of trademark, but this did not seem to gain much traction. Justice Alito did, however, ask whether "viewpoint discrimination is always prohibited in commercial speech," and used as an example, whether "a manufacturer of cigarettes could not place on a package of cigarettes "Great for your health. Don't believe the surgeon general." The attorney for The Slants replied that viewpoint discrimination in commercial speech was prohibited under IMS v. Sorrell (2011).
Another "hypothetical" - - - Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., in which a divided Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled a football team's trademark under the disparagement clause - - - was not broached in the oral argument, but looms large in any decision the Court will render.