Iancu, Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, et al. v. Brunetti, No. 18-302.  June 24, 2019.


The Supreme Court has held to be invalid as constitutionally impermissible viewpoint discrimination that portion of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 1052(a) that prohibits registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks.  The decision echoes the Court’s two term old determination in Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S.      (2017) that found constitutionally defective that portion of Section 1052(a) of the Lanham Act that prohibited registration of “disparaging” trademarks. 

The Court’s determination in Brunetti, which concerns a mark that resembles a common vulgarity with sexual connotations, was not surprising. What may to some be refreshing is that some of the justices seem ill at ease with the practice of analyzing First Amendment claims using outcome determinative classifications and rules and would favor a move toward looking at cases on the basis of which First Amendment principles would be served — or not — by review.  

Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan reiterated in this week’s opinion its core view that the government may not “discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions it conveys.” (Slip op.4).  The Court was unable to consider the terms “immoral” or “scandalous” to be other than value and meanings based and selective of ideas and therefore not susceptible of a saving viewpoint neutral construction. 

The Court rejected the government’s suggestion that the government would read the words “immoral” and “scandalous” jointly and only refuse to register marks that a majority of society would find to be objectionable  To do so would not address the statute as it is written but instead would construct a new statute according to the government’s wishes.  

Having found the statute to improperly consider the suppression of views, the Court observed that it is no answer to suggest that the statute could be construed to suppress only some views, for this is precisely the ill that the prohibitions on viewpoint discrimination are intended to remedy.

Justice Alito wrote separately in concurrence, noting the importance of the avoidance of viewpoint discrimination as a “poison to a free society,” and which is particularly problematic now, when free speech is under attack.  The susceptibility of the words “immoral” or “scandalous” to exploitation for illegitimate ends compels the Court’s conclusion in this case but does not prohibit Congress from fashioning new legislation.

Chief Justice Roberts concurred in part with the majority that the word “immoral” is not susceptible of a limiting neutral construction but suggests that the word “scandalous” may be.  Agreeing with dissenting Justice Sotomayor, the Chief Justices saw no reason to “give aid and comfort to those using obscene, vulgar and profane modes of expression.”  

Justice Breyer concurred in part and dissenting in part and agreed with Justice Sotomajor that a narrowing and constitutionally saving construction of the word “scandalous” could be acceptable.  This would permit prohibition of registration of only highly vulgar or obscene expression.

Justice Breyer observed that categorical analyses of speech ill serve First Amendment analyses.  The central and crucial question is whether any measure serves or deserves the values the First Amendment is intended to protect.  Not only are rules insufficient to be outcome-determinative, and ought to be mere guidance, but the court here has also not addressed the primary criteria for selecting among extant rules by determining whether the trademark statute concerns commercial speech or government speech.  

Justice Breyer agreed with Justice Sotomayor that elucidation of the distinction between content based discrimination and viewpoint based discrimination s not easily accomplished.  Justice Breyer would not find harm in prohibiting registration of highly vulgar or obscene words. Justice Breyer could not see how limiting registration of these emotionally provocative expressions constitutes “viewpoint discrimination.”

Moreover, it is difficult to avoid perceiving that any limitation on registration is content based.  The critical question in any First Amendment analysis, in Justice Breyer’s view, is whether any regulation causes harm to First Amendment interests that is disproportionate to any regulatory objective.  

Under such analysis very little harm to First Amendment interests would be worked by precluding registration of “highly vulgar or obscene” trademarks, particularly as merchants may use such marks without registration.

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor offered that the Court’s conclusions in this case will prohibit denial of registration of the most vulgar, profane and obscene remarks.  

Contrary to the majority, Justice Sotomayor perceives that the word “scandalous” may be interpreted to mean that expression which is shocking to a sense of decency.  

The distinction between content based discrimination and its most odious manifestation, viewpoint based discrimination, is not easy and it is clear that not every restriction on modes of expression is viewpoint based.  Lighting fires in the public square, uttering fighting words and other expressions are categorically excluded from First Amendment protection. These actions and utterances obtain their status because they are intolerable modes of expression: this is true no matter what the content or point of view advanced may be. These modes of expression cannot be tolerated no matter the idea.  As such, restricting registration of obscene or vulgar remarks is content based but viewpoint neutral and so the Court’s precedents have concluded.

Finally, it is not necessary to submit any and all content discrimination — even that which is viewpoint neutral — to strict scrutiny.  But when strict scrutiny does not apply, viewpoint based versus viewpoint neutral considerations may be outcome-determinative.  

Trademark registration is a commercial benefit which facilitates but is not necessary to trademark enforcement.  Once provided it cannot be administered in a viewpoint discriminatory manner. Trademark protections exist without government registration but their recognition and enforcement may be enhanced by registration. The government need not operate a trademark system but when it does it is permissible to permit some restrictions, particularly where their imposition may help some but not hurt others.

Even If the public does not associate trademarks with the federal government, the government’s involvement with registration does involve promoting particular marks, concerning some of which the government would decline association. The government has a reasonable interest in refraining from “lending its support to marks that are obscene, vulgar or profane.’” Prohibiting registration of such marks is reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, content based regulation and the narrowing construction of “scandalous” offered here would save the statute and inhibit a rush to registration of offensive materials.

The First Amendment guards the use of the words in issue here. This does not mean, Justice Sotomayor observed, that the government needs to support their use. 

Justice Sotomayor stressed that the instant case is a facial challenge.  The saving construction proffered would not be overly broad. Justice Sotomayor cautioned that if the statute were saved by a narrowing construction, the courts ought nonetheless take seriously viewpoint concerns raised in as-applied challenges.

Iancu v. Brunetti , U.S. Supreme Court, June 24, 2019

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