Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, April 8, 2019

Obscenities & The Supreme Court

While many people may be swearing on April 15 because they forgot to do their taxes, the Supreme Court will have swearing on its mind for another reason.  Iancu v. Brunetti poses the very interesting question of whether, under the First Amendment, the government may refuse to register trademarks it deems "immoral" or "scandalous."  Mr. Brunetti was denied a trademark for his clothing brand FUCT (Friends U Can't Trust). The Federal Circuit ruled in Brunetti's favor, and now the Supreme Court will hear the case.

Just two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam, that the "disparagement clause" in the Latham Act is incompatible with the First Amendment.  I think that is likely that Brunetti will succeed too in his trademark quest.

But, the merits of the case isn't want I wanted to blog about.  What is quite interesting in the case are the numerous examples in Brunetti's brief of trademarked and rejected words that could be deemed "immoral" or "scandalous."  National Law Journal, in its Supreme Court Brief email, noted that the briefs are "most assuredly not suitable for minors."  According to NLJ, the brief lists "34 words that might sound scandalous, only three of which have been handled consistently. [The trademark office] has allowed FCUK, FWORD, and WTF IS UP WITH MY LOVE LIFE? Again, those are mild compared to other unmentionable words and phrases in the brief."  If you would like to read all of the bad words in Brunetti's brief, you can find it here.  The juicy part starts on p. 11.

Despite the bad words in the brief, Brunetti's attorney told the Court in a footnote that he didn't expect it would be "necessary to refer to vulgar terms during argument. If it should be necessary, the discussion will be purely clinical, analogous to when medical terms are discussed."  That decision was probably for the best.  The NLJ article mentions Carter Phillips, who was called twice by the Court and advised not to use bad words in oral argument when he argued the FCC v. Fox case. 

I think that the subject of how litigants and the Court use profane language is fascinating.  Should the word be spelled out?  Should one use asterisks? And, if you dare spell it out, can you then say it out loud at argument?  Dare the justices say the word when announcing the opinion?  According to a 2012 New York Times article, when Justice Harlan announced the opinion of the Court in the Cohen case, he was instructed by Chief Justice Burger not to "'use that word' because 'it would be the end of the court' if he did."  You may recall from constitutional law that Mr. Cohen was prosecuted for wearing a jacket that contained words that, according to his attorney attorney, were "'not actually advocating sexual intercourse with the Selective Service.'"  Despite the Court's reticence to hear the word out loud, in many cases, especially in a case like Brunetti's, it is important to see the word in context.  

I plan on listening to Brunetti's attorney's argument if I get a chance to see if he holds true to his word.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/04/obscenity-the-supreme-court.html

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Humor, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink

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