Monday, April 15, 2019
The United States Supreme Court hear oral arguments in Iancu v. Brunetti, a First Amendment facial challenge to Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), which prohibits the Patent and Trademark Office from registering “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks.
Recall that Brunetti's apparel line, named "fuct," was denied a trademark and a divided Federal Circuit Court panel held the provision unconstitutional. Recall also that the United States Supreme Court in Matal v. Tam (2017) held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) violated the First Amendment, but despite the unanimous conclusion there were fractured rationales.
Indeed, whether or not Tam resolved the issue in Brunetti was a centerpiece of the oral argument, with Justice Sotomayor essentially asking the Deputy Solicitor General, Malcolm Stewart, to distinguish Tam within the first few minutes. Moreover, some of the unresolved issues in Tam — including the actual role of trademark registration, how trademark registration differs from direct prohibition, whether there could be any content (or viewpoint) basis on which to deny a trademark, and how the trademark program differs from other programs such as municipal advertising or government grants — reappeared in the Brunetti argument.
The Justices seemed troubled by any argument that the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) could reject a trademark on the basis that a majority or "substantial segment" of people might find it objectionable, especially given changing morals and issues about which segments of the population (as Justice Ginsburg asked, would this include a composite of 20 year olds).
Justice Breyer was particularly interested in whether the PTO could reject racist trademarks. For Breyer, certain racial slurs are "stored in a different place in the brain. It leads to retention of the word. There are lots of physiological effect with very few words." While Malcolm Stewart stated that he thought racial slurs were taken off the table by Tam, in his rebuttal he stated that " with respect to the single-most offensive racial slur, the PTO is currently holding in abeyance applications that incorporate that word" pending the possibility that the present decision could leave open the possibility that that word might be viewed as scandalous.
While many of the other hypotheticals involved profanity, obscenity, or "dirty words" (FCC v. Pacifica), Justice Breyer's concern will surely be addressed by at least one opinion when the decision is rendered in Brunetti.