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Section 2 of the Lanham Act, the federal law governing trademarks, lists a number of bars that preclude registration of a trademark on the federal register. These reasons include: the claimed matter is functional, meaning it affects the cost or quality of the underlying product or service; the claimed matter is merely descriptive, meaning that consumers don’t understand that it indicates source and instead think that it just describes some characteristic of the product; the claimed matter is deceptively misdescriptive, which is like descriptiveness except not true; the claimed matter is deceptive, meaning that the untruth would be material to consumers; the claimed matter is confusingly similar to an existing registered mark or mark in use in the United States; the claimed matter is the name, photo, or signature of a living person and there’s no written consent from that person to register the mark; the claimed matter is the flag or insignia of a nation or state or other U.S. political subdivision; the claimed matter creates a false association with people or institutions; the claimed matter is a geographic indication for wine or spirits but identifies a place other than the origin of the goods; and, last but not least, the claimed matter is scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.

The constitutionality of section 2 is now in doubt. Washington’s football team had its disparaging marks cancelled, a decision upheld by a district court in mid-2015 and now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit. But in December 2015, the Federal Circuit, en banc, held that section 2(a)’s disparagement bar was unconstitutional in the case of Simon Tam, an Asian-American seeking to register an anti-Asian slur in order to reclaim its negative meaning. The government apparently agrees that this holding also invalidates section 2(a)’s scandalousness bar, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision in September 2016.

This Article analyzes the First Amendment arguments against section 2(a)’s disparagement bar with reference to the consequences of any invalidation on the rest of the trademark statute. My fundamental conclusions are that In re Tam is wrongly reasoned even given the Supreme Court’s increased scrutiny of commercial speech regulations, and that to hold otherwise and preserve the rest of trademark law would require unprincipled distinctions within trademark law. More generally, the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence has become so expansive as to threaten basic aspects of the regulatory state; the result of subjecting economic regulations such as trademark registration to strict First Amendment scrutiny shows the damage that can be done thereby.

Publication Citation

92 Notre Dame L. Rev. 381 (2016)