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Supreme Court Reminds US Government That Hate Speech Is, In Fact, Free Speech


We've written a few times now about the case involving the band "The Slants" and their fight against the US Patent and Trademark Office concerning whether or not the band could trademark its own name (and, yes, this case is indirectly tied to the fight over whether or not the Washington Redskins can keep its team name trademarked). The key issue is a part of trademark law -- §1052(a) -- that says that the USPTO can deny trademarks if they "disparage... or bring into contempt or disrepute... persons, living or dead." When we first came across this case, a few years back, I argued that this clause did not violate the First Amendment. My argument, originally, was that a failure to grant a trademark was not restricting speech in any way (in fact, it was the opposite -- it was allowing more speech, since the registered trademark could no longer be used to block the speech of others).

But the issue is a tricky one, and after thinking about it more, reading much more and talking to a number of lawyers, my position shifted. And the hinge on which it shifted was this: the problem with 1052(a) was that it involved the government determining whether it "blessed" something with a trademark based on the content. And that, right there, has always been seen as a problem for the First Amendment. The government should not be making any subjective decisions based on expression -- and, yet, under 1052(a) it was. And now... the Supreme Court has agreed with that view and has struck down 15 USC 1052(a) as unconstitutional under the First Amendment, which makes this a big win for the First Amendment. And, on top of that, the Court went so far as to state upfront that a favorite claim of lots of angry people (on all sides of the political spectrum) these days -- that "hate speech" is somehow not "free speech" -- is simply untrue. The full ruling is 39 pages, which includes different Justices agreeing on some parts and not others, and writing separate concurring opinions -- but the overall point is clear. The court notes that the government, itself, is protected by the First Amendment and can take its own viewpoint on things, but this is different, because it's not content created by the government:

At issue here is the content of trademarks that are registered by the PTO, an arm of the Federal Government. The Federal Government does not dream up these marks, and it does not edit marks submitted for registration.Except as required by the statute involved here, 15 U. S. C. §1052(a), an examiner may not reject a mark based on the viewpoint that it appears to express. Thus, unless that section is thought to apply, an examiner does not inquire whether any viewpoint conveyed by a mark is consistent with Government policy or whether any such viewpoint is consistent with that expressed by other marks already on the principal register. Instead, if the mark meets the Lanham Act’s viewpoint-neutral requirements, registration is mandatory.

Thus, there is no legitimate argument that the government rejecting trademarks for disparagement violates the government's own First Amendment rights.

Then, there's the question of whether this is denying someone a benefit based on their constitutionally protected expression. The PTO pointed to a few other cases involving government subsidies, which has said the government can deny subsidies over activities it does not wish to promote. However, the Court rejects the PTO's argument here fairly simply, saying that registering a trademark is quite different than getting a subsidy.

The PTO also argues that this issue deserves less First Amendment scrutiny because -- by definition -- trademarks involve commercial speech. But the Court rejects that and makes its most forceful statement in support of free speech -- even when hateful. It's this part of the ruling that seems likely to be quoted in many free speech cases in the future concerning hateful speech:

But no matter how the point is phrased, its unmistakable thrust is this: The Government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend. And, as we have explained, that idea strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.”

Yes. Demeaning speech is hateful. Yes, hateful speech is generally a bad thing. But, no, we don't block it because the First Amendment strongly protects all such speech, out of a fear that opening up that door will allow in censorship of merely controversial ideas.

And the Supreme Court then also makes another important point, that if you allow the First Amendment to be chipped away on "commercial speech" like this, you create all sorts of other problems:

There is also a deeper problem with the argument thatcommercial speech may be cleansed of any expressionlikely to cause offense. The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates. If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political orsocial “volatility,” free speech would be endangered.

You need to protect the speech you dislike because the speech you may like may be disliked by others.

In the end, this is a good win for the First Amendment and for free speech.


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