Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decided In re Tam, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 22593 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 22, 2015). In it, the Federal Circuit made a sweeping pronouncement that the First Amendment applies to trademark registrations, and that a long-criticized prohibition on “disparaging” trademarks could no longer stand. The portion of the trademark act that fell was Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C.S. § 1052(a).
Of course, I was delighted. I have long railed against Section 2(a). My first (losing) fight against this provision was in 2007. See Billman, Jeffrey, The F Bomb, Orlando Weekly, Jun. 7, 2007. And, once CNN gave me some column space, I used a lot of it to write about this issue. (Marc J. Randazza, Decision on Asian-American band's name is wrong and Why Redskins decision is wrong.
So when this decision came in, I jumped for joy. That said, it was a huge pain in my ass. I had just sent off my law review article on the subject to the printer, with all the final edits completed. I had a whole section criticizing Section 2(a) jurisprudence, and unflatteringly comparing U.S. law to recent European decisions. Then, In re Tam came out, and I had to rush to update it. Thank goodness that the Federal Circuit didn’t wait one more day to release the decision.
But, of course, this was a small price to pay for the delight of seeing our First Amendment rights protected, and seeing the personal victory for the lawyers in the case – Ron Coleman, John Connell, and Joel MacMull – First Amendment Bad Asses of 2015, as far as I am concerned.
However, the decision seemed to leave an important fight for another day. But, a recent missive by the Department of Justice might have brought us that day.
Section 2(a) does not only prohibit “disparaging” marks. Section 2(a) has some restrictions in it that remain – some of them reasonable, even. Section 2(a) bars registration of marks that deceptively suggest a connection with persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols. Since the function of a trademark is to distinguish a mark owner’s goods and services from those of other producers or suppliers, these prohibitions make perfect sense. There is no commercial rationale to permit false advertising in a trademark.
The First Amendment Lawyers Association provided an amicus brief to the In re Tam Court, in which it argued that § 2(a)’s prohibition on “immoral and scandalous” trademarks should also die along with the prohibition on “disparaging” trademarks. However, since that specific issue was not presented squarely before the Court, the Court declined to explicitly expand its ruling to include all of § 2(a).
Despite this urging, In re Tam left this most problematic portion of Section 2(a) standing, if just barely. It is not that the court approved of this clearly unconstitutional provision. Far from it. The Court simply recognized that this particular portion of the Act was not being challenged in this particular case. Nevertheless, in Footnote 1 of the decision, the Court augured the downfall of this provision as well.
We limit our holding in this case to the constitutionality of the § 2(a) disparagement provision. Recognizing, however, that other portions of § 2 may likewise constitute government regulation of expression based on message, such as the exclusions of immoral or scandalous marks, we leave to future panels the consideration of the § 2 provisions other than the disparagement provision at issue here. To be clear, we overrule In re McGinley, 660 F.2d 481 (C.C.P.A. 1981), and other precedent insofar as they could be argued to prevent a future panel from considering the constitutionality of other portions of § 2 in light of the present decision.
And with that, the most offensive portion of 2(a) remained intact.
But it was like a billiard ball hanging on the edge of the pocket. One tap, and it would fall in. However, just like when you play pool, sometimes the ball hangs there for a second, and then falls in on its own. That just happened. In a letter brief issued Thursday, the Department of Justice conceded that § 2(a) was no longer enforceable in light of In re Tam.
We do not believe that given the breadth of the Court’s Tam decision and in view of the totality of the Court’s reasoning there, that there is any longer a reasonable basis in this Court's law for treating them differently…
The reasoning of Tam requires the invalidation of § 2(a)'s prohibition against registering scandalous and immoral Trademarks as well."(source)
Before we call the game over, the Department of Justice hints that it may appeal the In re Tam decision. Should that happen, the Supreme Court outcome would be anything but preordained. However, the In re Tam decision seems to be on solid constitutional grounds. I am optimistic that if the government does decide to appeal, that it will not be overturned. That said, I think I would be naïve if I said it would be a 9-0 decision.
Certainly, I find both prohibitions to be offensive under the First Amendment, but I can at least emotionally (if not Constitutionally) get on board with the government wanting to put its fingers on the scales of justice when it comes to opposing racism. But, as the In re Tam case shows us, when the government tries to do that, it usually does so with all the grace and logic of a Chris Farley character. Nevertheless, give them credit for good intentions.
On the other hand, the prohibition on "immoral and scandalous" trademarks was nothing more than a neo-Comstock attempt to legislate morality and to suppress sexual speech in order to serve illegitimate goals. One of my favorite law review articles ever was by Steve Russell, writing about the Communications Decency Act. He wrote:
By trying to regulate obscenity and indecency on the Internet, you have reduced the level of expression allowed consenting adults to that of the most anal retentive blueballed fuckhead U.S. attorney in the country. (source)
Every time I got a Section 2(a) rejection under the immoral and scandalous clause, I heard those words in my head, replacing "U.S. Attorney" with "trademark examiner." Today, perhaps, those examiners can go listen to Louie Louie, see if they find naughty words in it, and go whine to the FBI about it.
Some may feel this is a narrow decision regarding trademark rights, and those who don’t own any trademarks may not think this is a big deal, especially if they won’t be applying for any “immoral or scandalous” registrations. If you feel this way, you would be precisely wrong.
Every American should be celebrating this news. When the government decides to suppress First Amendment rights, no matter how narrow that suppression might be, we all have a little less liberty. When the courts recognize the expansive nature of those rights, we are all more free. It’s refreshing to see that the Department of Justice decided to yield to the In re Tam decision — even if it turns out to be temporary, rather than pathologically defending an unconstitutional law in the name of one very narrow definition of morality.
My delight at this development is both personal and professional. Professionally, I have been banging my head against Section 2(a) for most of my career. When I speak on the subject, I proudly announce that I have lost more 2(a) administrative appeals than I can remember. It isn’t that I’m proud of losing – but I’m proud of my clients for being willing to take up the fight, even in light of the fact that until In re Tam, it was a hard uphill battle, with the entire weight of the appellate decisions just brushing off the First Amendment as if it were an annoying little gnat.
I'm looking at YOU, In re Fox, 702 F.3d 633 (Fed. Cir. 2012) In re Mavety Media Grp. Ltd., 33 F.3d 1367 (Fed. Cir. 1994) and Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559 (5th Cir. 2005). If you read these cases, it will make you pretty sad that appellate judges can have such little reverence for the First Amendment, and such intellectual laziness in light of their own preconceived notions about morality. But, In re Tam restores all faith!
Those of us who believe in the First Amendment always believed that these decisions were wrong, but unfortunately, the government would exhaust each and every client before getting to the Federal Circuit to challenge it. Besides, how many times can you push that rock up the mountain before you just ask whether it is worth it?
But, finally, there was a client who didn't give up and who thought it was worth it — Simon Shiao Tam and the Slants (your new favorite band).
Therefore, I think that we all need to slap a few people on the back here. First, the Slants and Simon Shiao Tam for having the conviction to keep fighting this case to the appellate court. And just as much, Ron Coleman and Joel MacMull – the lawyers who handled the case. These lawyers did an incredible job – and they did it pro bono.
Because of them, your First Amendment rights are broader, more robust, and more protected today than they were just over a month ago. I have the privilege of calling Ron and Joel my friends. But, even if I did not know them, I would demand that all readers hoist them on their shoulders for what they’ve done for us. Fighting a First Amendment fight, for free, against some very poor odds is what I call “heroic.”
And if the government does appeal the In re Tam case to the Supreme Court, they’re going to have the bigger guns, unlimited funds, and at least a few of the justices already in their pockets.
Well, that doesn't concern me.
I like the good guys’ chances, with First Amendment Bad Asses like Ron, John, and Joel fighting for us.
If you find the issue of morality and intellectual property rights of interest, I'd be delighted if you downloaded and read my law review article on the subject. See Marc J. Randazza Freedom of Expression and Morality Based Impediments to the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights (January 16, 2016). Nevada Law Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2016. This issue is only a part of the article, as it deals with morality and IP rights on a global scale. If you do read it, download it rather than just reading in your browser. (It gets the numbers up)
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