“Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.”
For this week’s installment in our journey through the top ten Supreme Court cases to follow on this year’s docket we will be discussing the case Lee vs. Tam, which discusses “disparaging trademarks.” A case revolving around the First Amendment and the freedom of speech, this case talks about the law against disparaging trademarks, which has existed since 1946, but the Supreme Court has never expressed its full opinion or interpretation of this clause.
In this case, Simon Tam and his band “The Slants” wanted to register their band’s name with the U.S. Trademark Office, but their request was denied because it was disparaging to those of Asian descent. The Trademark Office cited the Disparagement Clause of the Lanham Act from 1946, which prohibits the use of trademarks and logos that are deemed immoral or may suggest a relation to a certain group of people, belief, institution, etc. On his third appeal, Tam’s request was denied because the judges decided that they were within their rights to refuse Tam’s request to trademark his band’s name. However, later the case was overturned and it was determined that the Trademark Office was violating Tam’s First Amendment right by denying him the ability to trademark his band’s name and thus indirectly stated that the Disparagement Clause from 1946 also violated the First Amendment. Simply, the case asks “is the Disparagement Clause invalid under the First Amendment?”
This case at its base touches on one of our most tightly protected rights—freedom of speech. So, is there any way to truly regulate what people say? I guess the simple answer is no because people are free to express their opinions and thoughts as much or as little as they want, and given how many ways there are to express one’s opinion in today’s world it is hard to avoid running into situations like this. I agree with the fact that if Tam’s band wants to Trademark their name they should be able to do so and I understand that their name is offensive, but they have the right to choose what name they will use. Once they choose a name, it is more on their part to regulate themselves and the message they will send as a band using said name. Here, responsibility falls more on the individual than the law; people must be able to regulate and understand certain social standards when expressing how they feel. Although this decision may appear to be insensitive, it is the most neutral and simple way to approach this issue.
A similar case to Lee vs. Tam was the case against the Washington Redskins football team and the discussion over whether the team should change their trademark because it was offensive to a certain group of people. Although that case never made it to the Supreme Court, it was dismissed in October 2016, it presents a near parallel story to that of Lee vs. Tam, and as a matter of fact Lee vs. Tam was cited in the arguments in the case against the Washington Redskins.