Oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday in Iancu v. Brunetti centered on the word FUCT. Well, sort of. As one of the lawyers fussily put it, it centered on “the equivalent of the past participle form of the paradigmatic profane word in our culture.” Right. FUCT.
The case is all about offensive, shocking and profane language. Yet the Justices and the parties’ attorneys pussyfooted around for an hour, steering the argument clear of anything even remotely R-rated. The attitude that there are several words so offensive they cannot be spoken aloud dominated the hearing. It may well dominate the Court’s eventual opinion.
Here’s the backdrop for all of that tiptoeing around those unspeakably naughty words.
In a previous post, I explained how the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the provision in the Lanham Act — which governs American trademark law — prohibiting trademarks that “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” Such trademarks, the Court determined, express viewpoints, and the First Amendment protects speech from viewpoint discrimination. In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged that Matal v. Tam, the case in question, did “not present the question of how other provisions of the Lanham Act should be analyzed under the First Amendment,” but if the Court sticks to its rationale in that case, it will have to extend First Amendment protection to all kinds of strong language, not just slurs but profanity and obscenity, too. I could call my pro-profanity nonprofit advocacy group Express Your Damned Self® and register the name as a trademark because Fuck the Lanham Act® — that’s our slogan— and there’s not a damned thing you or the Patent and Trademark Office could do about it. Continue reading
“Strong language” covers a lot of speech, from profanity to racial and ethnic slurs. The slurs got a big boost on 17 June 2017, in a United States Supreme Court decision. Until then, the Lanham Act of 1946 — which governs American trademark law — prohibited use of derogatory terms like slurs in federally approved trademarks. To quote the Act, trademarks may not “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” The Court unanimously decided instead that trademark owners can disparage with abandon and bring others into contempt or disrepute deliberately or with disregard.
In the words of Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, Simon Tam — founder of The Slants, the first all Asian-American dance-rock band — applied “for federal trademark registration of the band’s name […]. ‘Slants’ is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent, and members of the band are Asian-Americans. But the band members believe that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they will help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office refused the application because slant refers to the disparaging stereotype that people of Asian heritage are “slant-eyed.” The band hoped to “‘take ownership’ of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity.” The USPTO obstructed that re-appropriation. Continue reading