Supreme Court Ruling Bodes Well for Future of Redskins Trademarks

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Matal v. Tam that the law prohibiting the registration of disparaging trademarks violates the First Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s opinion will likely have a significant impact in the ongoing legal battle between the Washington Redskins and those seeking to have the registrations of their trademarks revoked.

As we detailed in an earlier blog post, the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia ruled in 2015 that the Redskins’ trademarks may disparage Native American groups, and therefore violate Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. The District Court therefore affirmed the earlier revocation of the trademarks’ registration.  The Redskins appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit here in Richmond.  However, the Fourth Circuit has held the case pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Matal v. Tam.

The decision in Matal overturns the legal basis for the U.S. District Court’s ruling in the Redskins’ case: namely that trademark registration is government speech and, as such, is exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.  The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the First Amendment is applicable in these instances, and that the Lanham Act’s prohibition against disparaging trademarks violates the Constitution’s protection of free speech.  This holding will almost certainly play heavily in the opinion ultimately authored by the Fourth Circuit in the months to come, deciding the future of the Redskins’ trademark rights.