February 10, 2017
On January 18, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Lee v. Tam. Simon Tam of The Slants, an Asian American rock band, applied to register the band’s name with the U.S. Trademark Office, but the application was denied. The Office claimed that the name would likely be disparaging towards “persons of Asian descent,” citing the Disparagement Clause of the Lanham Act of 1946, which prohibits trademarks that “[consist] of or [comprise] immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” Tam appealed to a board within the Office but was again denied. On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a panel of judges determined that the Office officials were within their rights to refuse the application. The Federal Circuit then reviewed the case en banc and found that the Disparagement Clause violated the First Amendment and that the Office should not have refused the application.
The question before the Supreme Court is whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which provides that no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless, inter alia, it “[c]onsists of . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute” is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
To discuss the case, we have Megan L. Brown, who is Partner at Wiley Rein LLP.