Supreme Court says law banning offensive trademarks is unconstitutional

WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a law forbidding official registration of offensive trademarks unconstitutionally limits free speech in a case involving a band called The Slants, an outcome the government has said could lead to a proliferation of racial slurs as sanctioned trademarks.

The court ruled 8-0 in favor of Portland, Oregon-based Asian-American dance rock band The Slants, which had been denied a trademark because the government deemed the name disparaging to people of Asian descent. The band challenged the rejection as a violation of free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, winning at the appeals court level before the government appealed to the high court.

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The ruling is expected to have a direct impact on another high-profile case involving the National Football League's Washington Redskins. The team filed a legal challenge to a 2014 decision by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tribunal canceling its trademarks as disparaging to Native Americans.

After the government rejected The Slants request, band frontman Simon Tam appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, which in 2015 ruled that the so-called disparagement provision of the 1946 law governing trademarks ran afoul of the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.

Tam has said he chose to call the band The Slants to reclaim a term some consider a derogatory reference to Asian people's eyes, and wear it as a "badge of pride." The band's lawyers have argued that the government cannot use trademark law to impose burdens on free speech to protect listeners from offense.

The federal government, which appealed the appeals court ruling, said in court papers that the government should not be required to approve trademarks "containing crude references to women based on parts of their anatomy; the most repellent racial slurs and white-supremacist slogans; and demeaning illustrations of the prophet Mohammed and other religious figures."

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John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
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Writing for the court on Monday, Justice Samuel Alito did not mince words in ruling that the trademark provision is unconstitutional. "It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend," Alito wrote.

In the separate Redskins case, a trademark board in 2014 canceled the team's six trademarks at the request of Native American activists on grounds that the team name disparaged Native Americans.

The team's appeal, also on free speech grounds, was put on hold in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, pending the outcome of The Slants' case.

Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court after arguments were heard in the case and did not participate in the decision.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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