Justices say law on offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

The case before the Supreme Court involved a musician, Simon Tam, who was denied trademark registration for the name of his band, The Slants, under the Lanham Act.

Supreme Court judge Samuel Alito said the patent office could not refuse to register the group's name because it was deemed disparaging. Courts had long ruled that it didn't violate the First Amendment because it doesn't actually bar the real-life use of the offending mark, nor does it prevent the owner from enforcing common law trademark rights.

During oral argument in January, several justices said provocative names are chosen by individuals and organizations to express their views or as advertising. A federal appeals court in Washington later said the law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional.

The justices were unanimous in saying that the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes free speech rights guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment.

That appears to mean that the Redskins also will be able to continue using their name, even though it offends people as well.

A federal court initially sided with The Slants, and today the Supreme Court did so too, unanimously, in fact. But past year, it allowed Texas to ban specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag because it was considered a form of government speech.

Snyder has repeatedly insisted he will not change the team's name despite continuing objections by Native Americans.

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The band has said it wanted to reclaim what is often seen as a slur.

The ruling will end a two-decade effort by Native American activists to cancel the team's registrations as pressure to change the name.

New high court Justice Neil Gorsuch didn't take part in the case.

"The Supreme Court vindicated the team's position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or cancelling a trademark registration based on the government's opinion", Blatt told the Associated Press.

The court also said the Voting Rights Act provision at issue could only be enforced by the USA attorney general, and lawsuits by private parties were barred. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Tam's case pits supporters on one side who argue they are fighting for free speech rights, and opponents who warn a Slants victory will require government approval of all kinds of hateful racial slurs, including the N-word. The same is true for the Redskins, but the team did not want to lose the legal protections that go along with a registered trademark.

Patent and Trademark Office spokesman Paul Fucito said the agency was reviewing the decision. The protections include blocking the sale of counterfeit merchandise and working to pursue a brand development strategy.

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