Facts of the Case
Erik Brunetti owns the clothing brand “fuct,” founded in 1990. In 2011, two individuals filed an intent-to-use application for the mark FUCT, and the original applicants assigned the application to Brunetti. The examining attorney refused to register the mark under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, finding it comprised immoral or scandalous matter (the pronunciation of “fuct” sounds like a vulgar word) in violation of that section. Brunetti requested reconsideration and appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which affirmed the examining attorney’s refusal to register the mark. The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that while the Board did not err in concluding the mark should be excluded under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, that section’s bar on registering immoral or scandalous marks is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
Does Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibits the federal registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” marks, violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment?
The Lanham Act prohibition on the registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks infringes the First Amendment. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court.
In Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. __ (2017), the Court held that a prohibition on registration of marks based on their viewpoint violates the First Amendment, and that a provision of the Lanham Act prohibiting registration of “disparaging” marks was viewpoint based. A prohibition on the registration of marks that are “immoral” or “scandalous”—at issue in this case—is similarly viewpoint based and therefore violates the First Amendment. The prohibition distinguishes between ideas aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them, which is the epitome of viewpoint-based discrimination.
The Court rejected the government’s proposal that the statute is susceptible to a limiting construction that would remove its viewpoint bias. The language of the statute does not support such a reading and to interpret it as such would be to “fashion a new one.”
Justice Samuel Alito joined the majority opinion in full and wrote a separate concurrence to highlight the importance of the Court continuing to affirm the principle that the First Amendment does not tolerate viewpoint discrimination. Justice Alito noted that Congress can adopt “a more carefully focused statute” that would prohibit the registration of “vulgar” marks without violating the First Amendment.
Chief Justice John Roberts filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. The Chief Justice argued that while he agreed with the majority that the “immoral” portion of the statute was not susceptible to a narrowing construction but agreed with Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s argument in favor of such a construction with respect to the “scandalous” portion.
Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which he agreed with the majority as to “immoral” but disagreed as to “scandalous.” Justice Breyer advocated against the categorical approach to First Amendment speech issues and for an approach that considers “whether the regulation at issue works speech-related harm that is out of proportion to its justifications.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Breyer joined. While Justice Sotomayor conceded that the majority’s construction of the statute is a reasonable one, it is not the only reasonable one and erroneously treats “immoral and scandalous” as a “unified standard.” She argued for a narrowing construction of the prohibition on “scandalous” marks to address only “obscenity, vulgarity, and profanity.” Such a construction would save the provision and avoid the “rush to register [vulgar, profine, and obscene] trademarks” that the Court’s decision makes probable.
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