Justices say law on offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of a federal law that bans offensive trademark protection in a ruling that could benefit the Washington Redskins in their legal fight over the team's controversial nickname.

The case centered on the Oregon-based, Asian-American band, which was denied a trademark because its name was considered offensive.

That rock band's name is the Slants - and its founder and bassist, an Asian-American named Simon Tam, argued that the band's name wasn't aimed at offending Asians in America.

Supreme Court judge Samuel Alito said the patent office could not refuse to register the group's name because it was deemed disparaging. But then a majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said the law violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

The case has drawn intense interest as it focused on the rights of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment of the USA constitution, at a time of heightened racial tensions in the country.

The National Football League team, which took the name Redskins in the 1930s, filed a legal challenge to a 2014 decision by a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tribunal canceling its trademarks as disparaging to Native Americans.

"Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and unsafe extension of the government-speech doctrine, for other systems of government registration [such as copyright] could easily be characterized in the same way", Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

More news: EU expands sanctions against North Korea

Today's decision will have implications for Washington's football team, whose name is now a dictionary-defined slur.

Despite intense public pressure to change the name, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has refused, saying in the past that it "represents honour, respect and pride" for Native Americans.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg has reported, "the trademark office has denied registration to a group calling itself "Abort the Republicans", and another called "Democrats Shouldn't Breed".

Redskins attorney Lisa Blatt said the court's decision effectively resolves the Redskins' longstanding dispute with the government.

Alito was backed in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen Breyer. As Justice Alito noted in the court's opinion on the case, Tam maintained that naming the band after a slur was an attempt from a member of a marginalized community to reclaim a derogatory phrase used to oppress and strip it of its power.

Trademark office spokesman Paul Fucito said officials are reviewing the court's ruling and plan to issue further guidance on how they will review trademark applications going forward.

In a filing Monday, the Justice Department defended the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's decision a year ago to strip the team of protections.

Related news