WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal trademarks can be registered in most cases even if they are considered derogatory.
The decision was a victory for an Asian American dance rock band dubbed The Slants -- and, in all likelihood, for the Washington Redskins, whose trademarks were cancelled in 2014 following complaints from Native Americans.
"After an excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years," the band said in a prepared statement, "we’re beyond humbled and thrilled to have won this case at the Supreme Court. 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."
While defending the First Amendment's freedom of speech protection, the justices did not remove all discretion from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But they raised the bar for trademark denials so that names deemed to be offensive but not hateful can survive.
The nation's capital has been captivated for years with the battle over the Redskins' name, but the high court had left the football team's case pending at a federal appeals court in order to hear the challenge brought by band leader Simon Tam and his Portland, Oregon-based foursome.
The Slants went to court after being denied trademark registration for a name they chose as an act of "reappropriation" — adopting a term used by others to disparage Asian Americans and wearing it as a badge of pride.
After losing in a lower court, the band won at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which ruled 9-3 last year that "the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech." The Obama administration then appealed to the Supreme Court.
During oral argument in January, several justices said provocative names are chosen by individuals and organizations to express their views or as advertising. Denying trademark registration, they said, was a form of viewpoint discrimination.
But some justices also wondered whether the government should retain wiggle room, particularly since even without being registered, groups such as The Slants can advertise and sign contracts.
The Supreme Court has upheld negative speech in recent years, even when it involved distasteful protests at military funerals or disgusting "animal crush" videos. But last year, it allowed Texas to ban specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag because it was considered a form of government speech.
The Slants won support during their court fight from both liberal and conservative groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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