SCOTUS Rules Offensive Trademarks Are Entitled to First Amendment Protection: Good for Cannabis?

Cannabis trademark law
Will the wraps come off cannabis trademarks?

Last week, in an 8-0 opinion in the Matal v. Tam case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause. For those unfamiliar with the case, in 2011, Simon Tam attempted to register The Slants (the name of his band), as a federal trademark. But the USPTO examining attorney rejected the application, on grounds that the name was an offensive reference to Asians.

Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1052(a), bars any trademark registration of immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter, and states that no trademark may “disparage … or bring … into contempt or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” Some characteristics of a mark that can result in rejection include references to sex, offense to religion, race or to honor, and references to illegality. Interpretation of this prohibition is (and you probably would guess) both subjective and fluid, creating a good deal of uncertainty as to what actually constitutes disparagement.

According to Tam, “he and his bandmates wanted to reclaim the term as a badge of pride.” The Court of Appeals, and now the Supreme Court, found that the disparagement clause “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” In Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion, he stated that 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.” We couldn’t agree more.

So how does this opinion affect cannabis trademark applications? Substantively, not a lot. Obtaining a federal trademark registration for use on cannabis-related goods presents a host of challenges, and none of that has changed. You still must make legal use of your mark in commerce to obtain a federal trademark registration.

But we were seeing the rejection, at least initially, of some trademark applications for goods and services that were ancillary to the cannabis industry – goods and services that CAN qualify for registration – based on references in the mark to immoral or scandalous matter. Ultimately, subjective denial of a trademark application based on the nature of speech it contains should not generally be within the power of the PTO. It stands to reason that if disparaging marks cannot be denied registration and are protected by the First Amendment, the same principal ought to apply to “immoral” or “scandalous” marks. Thus, the PTO may not be able to reject applications that make reference to things like being “high,” which could be considered “immoral” or “scandalous,” because those references are protected by the First Amendment.