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Federal appeals court vacates decision to cancel Washington Redskins' trademark

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Thursday vacated [text, PDF] the judgment of the district court that had canceled the Washington Redskins' [official website] trademark registrations.

The judgment vacated the holding in Pro Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse [order], which stated that "Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act [text, PDF] does not implicate the First Amendment…[and] the federal trademark registration program is a government speech and is therefore exempt from First Amendment scrutiny."

The Fourth Circuit's decision stemmed from Matal v. Tam [text, PDF], a US Supreme Court case decided [JURIST report] last June. The case involved a band whose application for trademarking their name was denied by the Patent and Trademark Office [official website] under a Lanham Act provision referred to as the "disparaging clause" that prohibited the registration of trademarks that may "disparage ... or bring ... into contemp[t] or disrepute" any "persons, living or dead."

The Supreme Court held that the disparagement clause violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

"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?... Trademarks are private, not government, speech," stated Justice Alito.

As the district court's decision in Pro Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse was predicated upon the disparagement clause, the court of appeals was bound by judicial deference to the Supreme Court, and the Redskins' trademark registration restrictions had to be removed.

The case is now remanded for further proceedings.

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