Matal v. Tam (582 US ___(2017)



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the federal circuit

June 19, 2017

Justice Alito announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III–A, and an opinion with respect to Parts III–B, III–C, and IV, in which The Chief Justice, Justice Thomas, and Justice Breyer join.

This case concerns a dance-rock band’s application for federal trademark registration of the band’s name, “The Slants.” “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 Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application based on a provision of federal law prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contempt or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a). We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.



“The principle underlying trademark protection is that distinctive marks—words, names, symbols, and the like—can help distinguish a particular artisan’s goods from those of others.” A trademark “designates the goods as the product of a particular trader” and “protects his good will against the sale of another’s product as his.” It helps consumers identify goods and services that they wish to purchase, as well as those they want to avoid. 

“Federal law does not create trademarks.” Trademarks and their precursors have ancient origins, and trademarks were protected at common law and in equity at the time of the founding of our country. For most of the 19th century, trademark protection was the province of the States.  Eventually, Congress stepped in to provide a degree of national uniformity, passing the first federal legislation protecting trademarks in 1870.  The foundation of current federal trademark law is the Lanham Act, enacted in 1946.  By that time, trademark had expanded far beyond phrases that do no more than identify a good or service. Then, as now, trademarks often consisted of catchy phrases that convey a message.

Under the Lanham Act, trademarks that are “used in commerce” may be placed on the “principal register,” that is, they may be federally registered. There are now more than two million marks that have active federal certificates of registration. This system of federal registration helps to ensure that trademarks are fully protected and supports the free flow of commerce. “[N]ational protection of trademarks is desirable,” we have explained, “because trademarks foster competition and the maintenance of quality by securing to the producer the benefits of good reputation.” 


Without federal registration, a valid trademark may still be used in commerce.  And an unregistered trademark can be enforced against would-be infringers in several ways. Most important, even if a trademark is not federally registered, it may still be enforceable under §43(a) of the Lanham Act, which creates a federal cause of action for trademark infringement.  Unregistered trademarks may also be entitled to protection under other federal statutes, such as the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. And an unregistered trademark can be enforced under state common law, or if it has been registered in a State, under that State’s registration system. 

Federal registration, however, “confers important legal rights and benefits on trademark owners who register their marks.”  Registration on the principal register (1) “serves as ‘constructive notice of the registrant’s claim of ownership’ of the mark”; (2) “is ‘prima facie evidence of the validity of the registered mark and of the registration of the mark, of the owner’s ownership of the mark, and of the owner’s exclusive right to use the registered mark in commerce on or in connection with the goods or services specified in the certificate"; and (3) can make a mark “ ‘incontestable’ ” once a mark has been registered for five years.”  Registration also enables the trademark holder “to stop the importation into the United States of articles bearing an infringing mark.”


The Lanham Act contains provisions that bar certain trademarks from the principal register. For example, a trademark cannot be registered if it is “merely descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive” of goods, or if it is so similar to an already registered trademark or trade name that it is “likely . . . to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive.”

At issue in this case is one such provision, which we will call “the disparagement clause.” This provision prohibits the registration of a trademark “which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” §1052(a). This clause appeared in the original Lanham Act and has remained the same to this day.

When deciding whether a trademark is disparaging, an examiner at the PTO generally applies a “two-part test.” The examiner first considers “the likely meaning of the matter in question, taking into account not only dictionary definitions, but also the relationship of the matter to the other elements in the mark, the nature of the goods or services, and the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace in connection with the goods or services.” “If that meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols,” the examiner moves to the second step, asking “whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group.” If the examiner finds that a “substantial composite, although not necessarily a majority, of the referenced group would find the proposed mark . . . to be disparaging in the context of contemporary attitudes,” a prima facie case of disparagement is made out, and the burden shifts to the applicant to prove that the trademark is not disparaging. What is more, the PTO has specified that “[t]he fact that an applicant may be a member of that group or has good intentions underlying its use of a term does not obviate the fact that a substantial composite of the referenced group would find the term objectionable.”


Simon Tam is the lead singer of “The Slants.” He chose this moniker in order to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity. The group “draws inspiration for its lyrics from childhood slurs and mocking nursery rhymes” and has given its albums names such as “The Yellow Album” and “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts.” 

Tam sought federal registration of “THE SLANTS,” on the principal register, but an examining attorney at the PTO rejected the request, applying the PTO’s two-part framework and finding that “there is . . . a substantial composite of persons who find the term in the applied-for mark offensive.” The examining attorney relied in part on the fact that “numerous dictionaries define ‘slants’ or ‘slant-eyes’ as a derogatory or offensive term.” The examining attorney also relied on a finding that “the band’s name has been found offensive numerous times”—citing a performance that was canceled because of the band’s moniker and the fact that “several bloggers and commenters to articles on the band have indicated that they find the term and the applied-for mark offensive.”

Tam contested the denial of registration before the examining attorney and before the PTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) but to no avail. Eventually, he took the case to federal court, where the en banc Federal Circuit ultimately found the disparagement clause facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. The majority found that the clause engages in viewpoint-based discrimination, that the clause regulates the expressive component of trademarks and consequently cannot be treated as commercial speech, and that the clause is subject to and cannot satisfy strict scrutiny. The majority also rejected the Government’s argument that registered trademarks constitute government speech, as well as the Government’s contention that federal registration is a form of government subsidy.  And the majority opined that even if the disparagement clause were analyzed under this Court’s commercial speech cases, the clause would fail the “intermediate scrutiny” that those cases prescribe.... 

The Government filed a petition for certiorari, which we granted in order to decide whether the disparagement clause “is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment”....


Because the disparagement clause applies to marks that disparage the members of a racial or ethnic group, we must decide whether the clause violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. And at the outset, we must consider three arguments that would either eliminate any First Amendment protection or result in highly permissive rational-basis review. Specifically, the Government contends (1) that trademarks are government speech, not private speech, (2) that trademarks are a form of government subsidy, and (3) that the constitutionality of the disparagement clause should be tested under a new “government-program” doctrine. We address each of these arguments below.


The First Amendment prohibits Congress and other government entities and actors from “abridging the freedom of speech”; the First Amendment does not say that Congress and other government entities must abridge their own ability to speak freely. And our cases recognize that “[t]he Free Speech Clause . . . does not regulate government speech.” 

As we have said, “it is not easy to imagine how government could function” if it were subject to the restrictions that the First Amendment imposes on private speech.....Imposing a requirement of viewpoint-neutrality on government speech would be paralyzing. When a government entity embarks on a course of action, it necessarily takes a particular viewpoint and rejects others. The Free Speech Clause does not require government to maintain viewpoint neutrality when its officers and employees speak about that venture.

Here is a simple example. During the Second World War, the Federal Government produced and distributed millions of posters to promote the war effort. There were posters urging enlistment, the purchase of war bonds, and the conservation of scarce resources. These posters expressed a viewpoint, but the First Amendment did not demand that the Government balance the message of these posters by producing and distributing posters encouraging Americans to refrain from engaging in these activities.

But while the government-speech doctrine is important—indeed, essential—it is a doctrine that is susceptible to dangerous misuse. If private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints. For this reason, we must exercise great caution before extending our government-speech precedents.

At issue here is the content of trademarks that are registered by the PTO, an arm of the Federal Government. The Federal Government does not dream up these marks, and it does not edit marks submitted for registration. Except as required by the statute involved here, an examiner may not reject a mark based on the viewpoint that it appears to express. Thus, unless that section is thought to apply, an examiner does not inquire whether any viewpoint conveyed by a mark is consistent with Government policy or whether any such viewpoint is consistent with that expressed by other marks already on the principal register. Instead, if the mark meets the Lanham Act’s viewpoint-neutral requirements, registration is mandatory....

In light of all this, it is far-fetched to suggest that the content of a registered mark is government speech. If the federal registration of a trademark makes the mark government speech, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently. It is saying many unseemly things. It is expressing contradictory views. It is unashamedly endorsing a vast array of commercial products and services. And it is providing Delphic advice to the consuming public.

For example, if trademarks represent government speech, what does the Government have in mind when it advises Americans to “make.believe” (Sony), “Think different” (Apple), “Just do it” (Nike), or “Have it your way” (Burger King)? Was the Government warning about a coming disaster when it registered the mark “EndTime Ministries”?

The PTO has made it clear that registration does not constitute approval of a mark. And it is unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of the public has any idea what federal registration of a trademark means.

None of our government speech cases even remotely supports the idea that registered trademarks are government speech.... 

Our decision in Summum is similarly far afield. A small city park contained 15 monuments. Eleven had been donated by private groups, and one of these displayed the Ten Commandments. A religious group claimed that the city, by accepting donated monuments, had created a limited public forum for private speech and was therefore obligated to place in the park a monument expressing the group’s religious beliefs.

Holding that the monuments in the park represented government speech, we cited many factors. Governments have used monuments to speak to the public since ancient times; parks have traditionally been selective in accepting and displaying donated monuments; parks would be overrun if they were obligated to accept all monuments offered by private groups; “[p]ublic parks are often closely identified in the public mind with the government unit that owns the land”; and “[t]he monuments that are accepted . . . are meant to convey and have the effect of conveying a government message.” 

Trademarks share none of these characteristics. Trademarks have not traditionally been used to convey a Government message. With the exception of the enforcement of 15 U. S. C. §1052(a), the viewpoint expressed by a mark has not played a role in the decision whether to place it on the principal register. And there is no evidence that the public associates the contents of trademarks with the Federal Government.

This brings us to the case on which the Government relies most heavily, Walker, which likely marks the outer bounds of the government-speech doctrine. Holding that the messages on Texas specialty license plates are government speech, the Walker Court cited three factors distilled from Summum. First, license plates have long been used by the States to convey state messages. Second, license plates “are often closely identified in the public mind” with the State, since they are manufactured and owned by the State, generally designed by the State, and serve as a form of “government ID.”  Third, Texas “maintain[ed] direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates.” As explained above, none of these factors are present in this case....

Perhaps the most worrisome implication of the Government’s argument concerns the system of copyright registration. If federal registration makes a trademark government speech and thus eliminates all First Amendment protection, would the registration of the copyright for a book produce a similar transformation?

The Government attempts to distinguish copyright on the ground that it is “the engine of free expression,” but as this case illustrates, trademarks often have an expressive content. Companies spend huge amounts to create and publicize trademarks that convey a message. It is true that the necessary brevity of trademarks limits what they can say. But powerful messages can sometimes be conveyed in just a few words.

Trademarks are private, not government, speech.


We next address the Government’s argument that this case is governed by cases in which this Court has upheld the constitutionality of government programs that subsidized speech expressing a particular viewpoint. These cases implicate a notoriously tricky question of constitutional law. “[W]e have held that the Government ‘may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected . . . freedom of speech even if he has no entitlement to that benefit.’ ”  But at the same time, government is not required to subsidize activities that it does not wish to promote. Determining which of these principles applies in a particular case “is not always self-evident,” but no difficult question is presented here.

Unlike the present case, the decisions on which the Government relies all involved cash subsidies or their equivalent.... 

The federal registration of a trademark is nothing like the programs at issue in these cases. The PTO does not pay money to parties seeking registration of a mark. Quite the contrary is true: An applicant for registration must pay the PTO a filing fee of $225–$600....

The Government responds that registration provides valuable non-monetary benefits that “are directly traceable to the resources devoted by the federal government to examining, publishing, and issuing certificates of registration for those marks.” But just about every government service requires the expenditure of government funds. This is true of services that benefit everyone, like police and fire protection, as well as services that are utilized by only some, the adjudication of private lawsuits and the use of public parks and highways....


Finally, the Government urges us to sustain the disparagement clause under a new doctrine that would apply to “government-program” cases. For the most part, this argument simply merges our government-speech cases and the previously discussed subsidy cases in an attempt to construct a broader doctrine that can be applied to the registration of trademarks. The only new element in this construct consists of two cases involving a public employer’s collection of union dues from its employees. But those cases occupy a special area of First Amendment case law, and they are far removed from the registration of trademarks....


Having concluded that the disparagement clause cannot be sustained under our government-speech or subsidy cases or under the Government’s proposed “government-program” doctrine, we must confront a dispute between the parties on the question whether trademarks are commercial speech and are thus subject to the relaxed scrutiny outlined in Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N. Y., 447 U. S. 557 (1980) . The Government and amici supporting its position argue that all trademarks are commercial speech. They note that the central purposes of trademarks are commercial and that federal law regulates trademarks to promote fair and orderly interstate commerce. Tam and his amici, on the other hand, contend that many, if not all, trademarks have an expressive component. In other words, these trademarks do not simply identify the source of a product or service but go on to say something more, either about the product or service or some broader issue. The trademark in this case illustrates this point. The name “The Slants” not only identifies the band but expresses a view about social issues.

We need not resolve this debate between the parties because the disparagement clause cannot withstand even Central Hudson review. Under Central Hudson, a restriction of speech must serve “a substantial interest,” and it must be “narrowly drawn.” 

It is claimed that the disparagement clause serves two interests. The first is phrased in a variety of ways in the briefs. Echoing language in one of the opinions below, the Government asserts an interest in preventing “ ‘underrepresented groups’ ” from being “ ‘bombarded with demeaning messages in commercial advertising.’ ” An amicus supporting the Government refers to “encouraging racial tolerance and protecting the privacy and welfare of individuals.” But no matter how the point is phrased, its unmistakable thrust is this: The Government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend. And, as we have explained, that idea strikes at the heart of the First Amendment.  Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.” 

The second interest asserted is protecting the orderly flow of commerce. Commerce, we are told, is disrupted by trademarks that “involv[e] disparagement of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, and similar demographic classification.”  Such trademarks are analogized to discriminatory conduct, which has been recognized to have an adverse effect on commerce. 

A simple answer to this argument is that the disparagement clause is not “narrowly drawn” to drive out trademarks that support invidious discrimination. The clause reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group, or institution. It applies to trademarks like the following: “Down with racists,” “Down with sexists,” “Down with homophobes.” It is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause. In this way, it goes much further than is necessary to serve the interest asserted.

The clause is far too broad in other ways as well. The clause protects every person living or dead as well as every institution. Is it conceivable that commerce would be disrupted by a trademark saying: “James Buchanan was a disastrous president” or “Slavery is an evil institution”?

There is also a deeper problem with the argument that commercial speech may be cleansed of any expression likely to cause offense. The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates. If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social “volatility,” free speech would be endangered.

*  *  *

For these reasons, we hold that the disparagement clause violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The judgment of the Federal Circuit is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.