Justices say law on offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of a law that bans offensive trademarks, ruling in favor of an Asian-American rock band called the Slants and giving a major boost to the Washington Redskins in their separate legal fight over the team name.

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.

“It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court.

Slants founder Simon Tam tried to trademark the band name in 2011, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the request on the ground that it disparages Asians. A federal appeals court in Washington later said the law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional and the Supreme Court agreed.

The Redskins made similar arguments after the trademark office ruled in 2014 that the name offends American Indians and canceled the team’s trademark. That case, before a federal appeals court in Richmond, had been on hold while the Supreme Court considered the Slants case.

Tam insisted he was not trying to be offensive, but wanted to transform a derisive term into a statement of pride. The Redskins also contend their name honors American Indians, but the team has faced decades of legal challenges from Indian groups that say the name is racist.

Tam said the band was “beyond humbled and thrilled” with the ruling.

“This journey has always been much bigger than our band: it’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves,” he said.

Despite intense public pressure to change the Redskins name, team owner Dan Snyder has refused, saying in the past that it “represents honor, respect and pride” for Native Americans. Snyder issued a quick statement after Monday’s decision: “I am THRILLED. Hail to the Redskins.”

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