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Symposium: The First Amendment silences trademark

Ned Snow is a professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

In Matal v. Tam (formerly called Lee v. Tam), the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act, which prevents registration of marks that employ disparaging names. The linchpin of its opinion is the conclusion that the disparagement clause constitutes viewpoint discrimination. Secondarily, the court relies on the argument that the disparagement clause does not support the government’s interest in regulating speech. As I explain below, these arguments are unconvincing. Finally, the court articulates a broader policy concern of upholding restrictions that directly suppress speech in the commercial marketplace. That concern, I argue, is unfounded for the disparagement clause.

Viewpoint discrimination

Viewpoint discrimination is simple to understand (although sometimes difficult to apply): It occurs when the government prohibits a particular view or takes a position rather than prohibiting a general category or subject matter of speech. At first blush, the disparagement clause seems to prohibit only a general category of speech rather than a particular viewpoint: The clause does not adopt a position, indiscriminately applying to all hate speech, regardless of which person or institution a mark might disparage. Yet the court sees it differently. Justice Samuel Alito explains that a prohibition of all disparaging views is still a prohibition of viewpoints. In his words: “Giving offense is a viewpoint.” And Justice Anthony Kennedy further explains: “To prohibit all sides from criticizing their opponents makes a law more viewpoint based, not less so.” Apparently, then, prohibiting all positions on a subject matter is just as viewpoint discriminatory as prohibiting only one. End of case, or so it would seem.

But this rationale is troubling. It calls into question other fundamental provisions of the Lanham Act. The Lanham Act prohibits registration of marks that both provide truthful information and make subjective assertions about their products. More specifically, the Lanham Act prohibits registration of marks that are generic descriptions of goods, that are specific descriptions of characteristics of goods, that are surnames (even of the source), and that indicate the geographic origin of a good. (Some of these types of marks may gain trademark protection over time and through an expensive showing of secondary meaning, but for purposes of viewpoint-discrimination analysis, the fact that they are denied in the absence of these circumstances is all that matters.) In short, the Lanham Act specifically prohibits applicants from telling truthful information and making claims about a good or its source. Are these provisions of the Lanham Act viewpoint discriminatory? According to Alito’s reasoning, it would seem so: Telling the truth is a viewpoint – a viewpoint, incidentally, that is much more central to the purpose of the First Amendment than is hate speech. And according to Kennedy’s reasoning: “[t]o prohibit all sides from [making claims about their products] makes a law more viewpoint based, not less so,” suggesting that a blanket prohibition of descriptive truths is viewpoint discriminatory. According to the reasoning of the Tam court, the Lanham Act’s provisions that bar registration for truthful content would seem viewpoint discriminatory.

Consider also the Lanham Act’s prohibition of government symbols. Section 2 of the Lanham Act bars trademark protection for any mark that “[c]onsists of or comprises the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof.” Last time I checked, preventing someone from expressing his patriotism by displaying the United States flag constituted an abridgement of free speech. Under the court’s reasoning, the Lanham Act’s prohibition of trademark registration for government symbols would be viewpoint discriminatory.

How, then, is a prohibition against disparaging speech any more viewpoint discriminatory than the other prohibitions in the Lanham Act? Stated differently, what principle dictates the viewpoint distinction between the disparagement clause and the other criteria for trademark eligibility? I don’t see it. The disparagement clause cannot be viewpoint discriminatory for the simple reason that if it were, it would imply the viewpoint-discriminatory nature of other fundamental registration criteria.

Limited public forum

Why does it matter whether the discrimination is based on viewpoint or subject matter? Alito explains that if the discrimination were not viewpoint based, it might be justified under the limited-public-forum doctrine. Congress has created a public forum – the trademark registration system – to facilitate private speech, and as a result, the trademark system appears to constitute a limited public forum. In such a “metaphysical” forum, Congress may impose content-based restrictions that are viewpoint neutral, to the extent that the restrictions support the purpose of the forum. The disparagement clause, then, would be permissible to the extent that it supports the purpose of the trademark system, which I address below in discussing commercial-speech regulation.

Commercial speech regulation

Tellingly, Alito does not rely solely on viewpoint discrimination to condemn the disparagement clause. He analyzes the clause under the test for commercial-speech regulation. Key to this analysis is the government interest in regulating speech. Stated another way: What is it about the context of trademark law that would justify Congress in withholding registration from a disparaging mark? One interest is the orderly flow of commerce. That seems reasonable, given that hate speech does tend to interfere with people engaging in commercial transactions. Alito, however, argues that the statute is not narrowly tailored to this interest, so as to prevent only the sort of invidious discrimination that would disrupt commerce. That is debatable. Arguably, the court could interpret the disparagement clause narrowly, to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation.

Putting aside the orderly-flow-of-commerce interest, the court failed to recognize another important government interest underlying the disparagement clause: the interest in facilitating a peaceful society among citizens of disparate backgrounds and beliefs. A system of commerce that invites all to participate is integral to the fabric of a peaceful society. Religion, ideology and political party all yield to the commercial transaction of buyer and seller cooperating. Disparaging marks threaten this benefit of commerce. Disparaging marks work against universal cooperation in the marketplace. They facilitate an environment of exclusion. They promote disrespect rather than cooperation. Commercial offers for sale, which are supposed to facilitate universal cooperation, become a means to promote disrespect towards others. Simply put, disparaging marks contravene the critically important social benefit of a commercial system. Preventing those marks serves the underlying and broad purpose of commerce generally.

Thus, I am doubtful about the doctrinal underpinnings of the Tam decision. Its rationale for viewpoint discrimination appears weak when compared with the Lanham Act’s other discriminatory criteria for trademark registration. Similarly, the disparagement clause appears justifiable as a commercial-speech regulation because it supports the government’s interest in facilitating universal participation in the commercial marketplace.

Speech suppression in the commercial marketplace

All this being said, the court does raise an understandable concern. Alito frankly voices that concern:

The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates. If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social “volatility,” free speech would be endangered.

It would seem, then, that the court is fearful that protected and valuable speech could be suppressed merely by labeling it as commercial. What if Congress passed a law that prohibited any critical speech in commercial print? Would the commercial nature of the speech justify such broad content-based regulation? First is a ban on disparaging trademarks, and next is a ban on The New York Times. Loudly the court opines that commerciality does not justify prohibitions on speech that permeates public life – in this particular instance, trademarks.

This concern makes sense to a point. Certainly we must avoid suppressing ideas in the name of facilitating commerciality. Unconstitutional speech suppression might arise were Congress to withhold money, impose a fine or affix criminal penalties in response to speech content. But none of these acts of speech suppression is present here. Indeed, according to the court, the benefit of trademark registration is not the same as a cash subsidy or its equivalent. The benefit of registration lies entirely in the commercial realm, thereby limiting the influence of the disparagement clause to that commercial realm. For that matter, withholding registration does not prevent financial success in the commercial marketplace. Even without registration, a disparaging mark can still serve as a trademark. It can still identify source. And owners of disparaging marks can still fully participate in the commercial marketplace. So although a disparaging mark would lack the commercial benefit of registration, that mark could still succeed both financially and philosophically in the marketplace of ideas. Speech suppression is not occurring here.

In sum, Congress should be able to reward civility in commercial discourse. A society can both appreciate the value of contrary and even hateful ideas and at the same time reward commercial speakers who choose to engage civilly. There is neither suppression nor viewpoint discrimination when the people choose to reward civil discourse in commercial transactions.

Cases: Matal v. Tam

Recommended Citation: Ned Snow, Symposium: The First Amendment silences trademark, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 20, 2017, 12:43 PM),