Matal v. Tam,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)  | 
  • Opinion (Anthony M. Kennedy)  | 
  • Opinion (Clarence Thomas)

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 15–1293

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JOSEPH MATAL, INTERIM DIRECTOR, UNITED STATES PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE, PETITIONER v. SIMON SHIAO TAM

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the federal circuit

[June 19, 2017]

Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan join, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has denied the substantial benefits of federal trademark registration to the mark THE SLANTS. The PTO did so under the mandate of the disparagement clause in 15 U. S. C. §1052(a), which prohibits the registration of marks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.”

As the Court is correct to hold, §1052(a) constitutes viewpoint discrimination—a form of speech suppression so potent that it must be subject to rigorous constitutional scrutiny. The Government’s action and the statute on which it is based cannot survive this scrutiny.

The Court is correct in its judgment, and I join Parts I, II, and III–A of its opinion. This separate writing explains in greater detail why the First Amendment’s protections against viewpoint discrimination apply to the trademark here. It submits further that the viewpoint discrimination rationale renders unnecessary any extended treatment of other questions raised by the parties.

I

Those few categories of speech that the government can regulate or punish—for instance, fraud, defamation, or incitement—are well established within our constitutional tradition. See United States v. Stevens, 559 U. S. 460, 468 (2010) . Aside from these and a few other narrow exceptions, it is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys. See Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819 –829 (1995).

The First Amendment guards against laws “targeted at specific subject matter,” a form of speech suppression known as content based discrimination. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 12). This category includes a subtype of laws that go further, aimed at the suppression of “particular views . . . on a subject.” Rosenberger, 515 U. S., at 829. A law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an “egregious form of content discrimination,” which is “presumptively unconstitutional.” Id., at 829–830.

At its most basic, the test for viewpoint discrimination is whether—within the relevant subject category—the government has singled out a subset of messages for disfavor based on the views expressed. See Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc., 473 U. S. 788, 806 (1985) (“[T]he government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includible subject”). In the instant case, the disparagement clause the Government now seeks to implement and enforce identifies the relevant subject as “persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a). Within that category, an applicant may register a positive or benign mark but not a derogatory one. The law thus reflects the Government’s disapproval of a subset of messages it finds offensive. This is the essence of viewpoint discrimination.

The Government disputes this conclusion. It argues, to begin with, that the law is viewpoint neutral because it applies in equal measure to any trademark that demeans or offends. This misses the point. A subject that is first defined by content and then regulated or censored by mandating only one sort of comment is not viewpoint neutral. To prohibit all sides from criticizing their opponents makes a law more viewpoint based, not less so. Cf. Rosenberger, supra, at 831–832 (“The . . . declaration that debate is not skewed so long as multiple voices are silenced is simply wrong; the debate is skewed in multiple ways”). The logic of the Government’s rule is that a law would be viewpoint neutral even if it provided that public officials could be praised but not condemned. The First Amendment’s viewpoint neutrality principle protects more than the right to identify with a particular side. It protects the right to create and present arguments for particular positions in particular ways, as the speaker chooses. By mandating positivity, the law here might silence dissent and distort the marketplace of ideas.

The Government next suggests that the statute is viewpoint neutral because the disparagement clause applies to trademarks regardless of the applicant’s personal views or reasons for using the mark. Instead, registration is denied based on the expected reaction of the applicant’s audience. In this way, the argument goes, it cannot be said that Government is acting with hostility toward a particular point of view. For example, the Government does not dispute that respondent seeks to use his mark in a positive way. Indeed, respondent endeavors to use The Slants to supplant a racial epithet, using new insights, musical talents, and wry humor to make it a badge of pride. Respondent’s application was denied not because the Government thought his object was to demean or offend but because the Government thought his trademark would have that effect on at least some Asian-Americans.

The Government may not insulate a law from charges of viewpoint discrimination by tying censorship to the reaction of the speaker’s audience. The Court has suggested that viewpoint discrimination occurs when the government intends to suppress a speaker’s beliefs, Reed, supra, at ___–___ (slip op., at 11–12), but viewpoint discrimination need not take that form in every instance. The danger of viewpoint discrimination is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. An initial reaction may prompt further reflection, leading to a more reasoned, more tolerant position.

Indeed, a speech burden based on audience reactions is simply government hostility and intervention in a different guise. The speech is targeted, after all, based on the government’s disapproval of the speaker’s choice of message. And it is the government itself that is attempting in this case to decide whether the relevant audience would find the speech offensive. For reasons like these, the Court’s cases have long prohibited the government from justifying a First Amendment burden by pointing to the offensiveness of the speech to be suppressed. See ante, at 23 (collecting examples).

The Government’s argument in defense of the statute assumes that respondent’s mark is a negative comment. In addressing that argument on its own terms, this opinion is not intended to imply that the Government’s interpretation is accurate. From respondent’s submissions, it is evident he would disagree that his mark means what the Government says it does. The trademark will have the effect, respondent urges, of reclaiming an offensive term for the positive purpose of celebrating all that Asian-Americans can and do contribute to our diverse Nation. Brief for Respondent 1–4, 42–43. While thoughtful persons can agree or disagree with this approach, the dissonance between the trademark’s potential to teach and the Government’s insistence on its own, opposite, and negative interpretation confirms the constitutional vice of the statute.

II

The parties dispute whether trademarks are commercial speech and whether trademark registration should be considered a federal subsidy. The former issue may turn on whether certain commercial concerns for the protection of trademarks might, as a general matter, be the basis for regulation. However that issue is resolved, the viewpoint based discrimination at issue here necessarily invokes heightened scrutiny.

“Commercial speech is no exception,” the Court has explained, to the principle that the First Amendment “requires heightened scrutiny whenever the government creates a regulation of speech because of disagreement with the message it conveys.” Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U. S. 552, 566 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). Unlike content based discrimination, discrimination based on viewpoint, including a regulation that targets speech for its offensiveness, remains of serious concern in the commercial context. See Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U. S. 60 –72 (1983).

To the extent trademarks qualify as commercial speech, they are an example of why that term or category does not serve as a blanket exemption from the First Amendment’s requirement of viewpoint neutrality. Justice Holmes’ reference to the “free trade in ideas” and the “power of . . . thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” Abrams v. United States, 250 U. S. 616, 630 (1919) (dissenting opinion), was a metaphor. In the realm of trademarks, the metaphorical marketplace of ideas becomes a tangible, powerful reality. Here that real marketplace exists as a matter of state law and our common-law tradition, quite without regard to the Federal Government. See ante, at 2. These marks make up part of the expression of everyday life, as with the names of entertainment groups, broadcast networks, designer clothing, newspapers, automobiles, candy bars, toys, and so on. See Brief for Pro-Football, Inc., as Amicus Curiae 8 (collecting examples). Nonprofit organizations—ranging from medical-research charities and other humanitarian causes to political advocacy groups—also have trademarks, which they use to compete in a real economic sense for funding and other resources as they seek to persuade others to join their cause. See id., at 8–9 (collecting examples). To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit Government censorship.

This case does not present the question of how other provisions of the Lanham Act should be analyzed under the First Amendment. It is well settled, for instance, that to the extent a trademark is confusing or misleading the law can protect consumers and trademark owners. See, e.g., FTC v. Winstead Hosiery Co., 285 U. S. 483, 493 (1922) (“The labels in question are literally false, and . . . palpably so. All are, as the Commission found, calculated to deceive and do in fact deceive a substantial portion of the purchasing public”). This case also does not involve laws related to product labeling or otherwise designed to protect consumers. See Sorrell, supra, at 579 (“[T]he government’s legitimate interest in protecting consumers from commercial harms explains why commercial speech can be subject to greater governmental regulation than noncommercial speech” (internal quotation marks omitted)). These considerations, however, do not alter the speech principles that bar the viewpoint discrimination embodied in the statutory provision at issue here.

It is telling that the Court’s precedents have recognized just one narrow situation in which viewpoint discrimination is permissible: where the government itself is speaking or recruiting others to communicate a message on its behalf. See Legal Services Corporation v. Velazquez, 531 U. S. 533 –542 (2001); Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth, 529 U. S. 217, 229, 235 (2000) ; Rosenberger, 515 U. S., at 833. The exception is necessary to allow the government to stake out positions and pursue policies. See Southworth, supra, at 235; see also ante, at 13–14. But it is also narrow, to prevent the government from claiming that every government program is exempt from the First Amendment. These cases have identified a number of factors that, if present, suggest the government is speaking on its own behalf; but none are present here. See ante, at 14–18.

There may be situations where private speakers are selected for a government program to assist the government in advancing a particular message. That is not this case either. The central purpose of trademark registration is to facilitate source identification. To serve that broad purpose, the Government has provided the benefits of federal registration to millions of marks identifying every type of product and cause. Registered trademarks do so by means of a wide diversity of words, symbols, and mes-sages. Whether a mark is disparaging bears no plausible relation to that goal. While defining the purpose and scope of a federal program for these purposes can be complex, see, e.g., Agency for Int’l Development v. Alliance for Open Society Int’l, Inc., 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 8), our cases are clear that viewpoint discrimination is not permitted where, as here, the Government “expends funds to encourage a diversity of views from private speakers,” Velazquez, supra, at 542 (internal quotation marks omitted).

*  *  *

A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.

For these reasons, I join the Court’s opinion in part and concur in the judgment.

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