On June 19, the Supreme Court decided in Matal v. Tam that the government cannot refuse to trademark potentially derogatory or offensive names, a decision that will likely impact the national debate about hate speech and the First Amendment for decades. This ruling means that though hate speech remains constitutionally protected as a general matter, harassing conduct remains subject to civil rights laws.
The case arose when a rock band known as “The Slants” attempted to trademark their band name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). The band’s request was denied because the trademark would be in violation of the Lanham Act, a federal statute that includes a “disparagement clause” that precludes the PTO from trademarking names that may “disparage” individuals or groups. The term “slant” is considered an ethnic slur directed towards the Asian community.
The Court unanimously agreed that the “disparagement clause” violates the First Amendment, but was split as to how. The Court unanimously agreed that the trademarks are not government speech but are inherently private speech because they are the mental creation of a private party. Previously, the Court had determined that government speech was not subject to the First Amendment, and in this decision, Justice Alito warned against the danger of applying the government-speech doctrine too liberally.
Then, Justice Alito was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer in refuting the government’s claims that trademarks were government-subsidized speech, which is not subject to the First Amendment. The Court reasoned that because the filer of a trademark was the party paying a trademark fee, instead of vice versa, this argument was invalid. Then, Justice Alito rejected the government’s argument that a trademark is commercial speech, which is subject to less First Amendment protection. Alito worte that even if it were commercial speech, the denial of a trademark application would not pass the test used to evaluate restrictions on such commercial speech.
In a separate opinion, Justice Kennedy was joined by Justices Ginsberg, Kagan and Sotomayor in determining that the “disparagement clause” was solely unconstitutional because it is an example of the government using its own judgment to discriminate against certain trademark requests, while allowing for others it finds more appropriate, constituting what the Court deems “viewpoint discrimination.” Justice Kennedy concludes by stating that “viewpoint discrimination” inherently violates the First Amendment and its purpose to create a “free and open discussion in a democratic society.”
The Court’s decision builds upon a trend taken by the Supreme Court in recent years to rule in favor of free speech protections, perhaps most notably in 2011, when the Court in Snyder v. Phelps protected the Constitutional right of protesters to use homophobic and otherwise offensive language outside of a military funeral.
Many free speech advocates are calling the Matal ruling a victory for the First Amendment, with the Court further defining free speech jurisprudence that will check government interference with even limited restrictions on free speech. In particular, the Matal decision is being celebrated by the Washington Redskins, the professional NFL team that has been engaged in legal battles since 2014, when PTO refused to renew the team’s trademark over the term “Redskins”, which is perceived to be an offensive slur for Native Americans. Others fear the Matal decision, asserting that it could provide new grounds for hate groups and others looking to trademark names and other materials that could incite hatred or worse for minority groups.
The Court has long upheld that hate speech that rises to the level of harassment- at least in cases of race or gender-based harassment- violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This is unlikely to change going forward, but the Matal decision could further blur the line between what constitutes
Constitutionally protected hate speech and what is speech that is harassing and/or likely to incite public disorder.
The debate around hate speech and the First Amendment is especially pertinent on college campuses, where in recent years administrators, advocacy groups and other stakeholders have argued over what are the appropriate legal steps to take when students are subjected to hateful language by other students. More than half of all American college and university campuses, including many public institutions, have enacted speech codes which seek to limit when and where students can express themselves on campus. This has coupled with a rise in the occurrence of hate-based incidents on campus, including acts of anti-Semitism.
In recent years, numerous speeches and lectures organized by pro-Israel students and faculty on college and university campuses have been silenced by protestors. Notable incidents include Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat being shouted down by student protestors at San Francisco State University, the physical provocation of an Israeli professor by a student protestor during a private event at the University of Texas at Austin, and most recently last month, the sabotage by student protestors of an event at University of California-Irvine featuring Israeli veteran soldiers with loud chanting, profanity and accusations of genocide. Various state and municipal statutes and university codes of conduct prohibit the disruption of lawful meetings, affirming that the right to freedom of speech does not include the right to deprive others of their First Amendment rights. The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law has worked to protect the rights of Jewish and pro-Israel campus communities to safely and peacefully express themselves.