48 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2017 Last revised: 26 Feb 2017
Date Written: November 16, 2016
The Federal Circuit’s ruling that the § 2(a) disparagement provision is unconstitutional, if upheld, could allow for numerous provisions of the Trademark Act to be overturned, dismantling the modern trademark system. The trademark system is premised on evaluating speech and making content-based determinations. Granting a trademark registration requires content-based determinations, though not viewpoint-based, as words are evaluated independent of applicants’ individual viewpoints.
In no way does the refusal to register a trademark prevent its use or diminish public debate. Rather than facilitating public debate, a trademark registration is a government-issued document that makes it easier for its owner to suppress the speech of others. A trademark registration is not an entry pass to the forum; it is a right to exclude. Thus in trademark law whether the government refuses registration to a mark owner or it arms that owner with a registration to enforce against other speakers, the government inevitably interferes in someone’s speech.
The Federal Circuit’s mistake was to treat a regulatory, benefit-granting program as if it were a ban on speech. Although prohibiting the use of disparaging marks would suppress speech, the government does not suppress speech by refusing to include these marks on the federal register. If a firm wants to use the N-word as its mark, it is free to do so under trademark law. Instead of doctrines focused on banned speech, the unconstitutional conditions doctrine is a more appropriate test for the trademark registration system, and because registration does not attempt to affect a registrant’s speech outside the four corners of the registration it poses no First Amendment problem.
The different justifications, functioning, and risks of registration compared to laws punishing speech make application of doctrines about banning speech to the Lanham Act both incoherent and unwise. To rule otherwise would jeopardize much of the structure of trademark law.
Keywords: trademark law, trademark registration, disparagement
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Farley, Christine Haight and Tushnet, Rebecca, Supreme Court Amicus Brief of Law Professors in Support of Petitioner, Lee v. Tam, No. 15-1293 (Filed Nov. 16, 2016) (November 16, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2906286 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2906286