June 29, 2017
On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Matal 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, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, ultimately held en banc that the Disparagement Clause violated the First Amendment on its face.
By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Federal Circuit. In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court held that the Disparagement Clause of the Lanham Act violates the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause. Parts I, II, and III-A of Justice Alito’s majority opinion were joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Thomas joined except for Part II. Parts III-B, III-C, and IV of Justice Alito’s majority opinion were joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Breyer. Justice Kennedy filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
To discuss the case, we have Michael R. Huston, who is Associate Attorney at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.