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Curbs on Disparaging Trademarks Thrown Out by US Supreme Court

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Supreme Court rules for rock band 'The Slants', which bodes well for Redskins

The Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit against the United States Trademark and Patent Office, who sought to prevent the band from trademarking their name.

In 2014, following a vehement campaign to pressure the National Football League and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the team's name over the concern that it offended many Native Americans, the trademark office canceled the Redskins' trademark, citing the same clause in the Lanham Act as it did with the Slants' application in 2011. She said the nickname is a racist slur that never should have been trademarked in the first place.

The Supreme Court has now affirmed the lower appeals court's opinion, which is also potentially welcome news for the NFL's Washington Redskins, whose own marks were canceled for being disparaging to Native Americans.

"The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause", Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion for the court. "It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend".

Today's decision will have implications for Washington's football team, whose name is now a dictionary-defined slur. Such suits must be filed by the federal government, not private citizens, that court held.

Banzhaf filed a petition to deny the renewal of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's Washington radio station, WWXX-FM, over its use of the term "Redskins" on-air to refer to the team.

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

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The Redskins made similar arguments after the trademark office ruled in 2014 that the name offends American Indians and canceled the team's trademark.

"I am THRILLED", Snyder told the AP.

Lisa Simpson, an intellectual property expert, characterized the Supreme Court's decision as a slippery slope. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Critics of the law said the trademark office has been wildly inconsistent over the years in deciding what terms are too offensive to warrant trademark protection.

Tam's case pits supporters on one side who argue they are fighting for free speech rights, and opponents who warn a Slants victory will require government approval of all kinds of hateful racial slurs, including the N-word.

In a filing Monday, the Justice Department defended the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's decision past year to strip the team of protections. The protections include blocking the sale of counterfeit merchandise and working to pursue a brand development strategy.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg has reported, "the trademark office has denied registration to a group calling itself "Abort the Republicans", and another called "Democrats Shouldn't Breed".

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