Washington (CNN)The Supreme Court struck down part of a federal law that denies trademark protection of terms that disparage living or dead.
Supreme Court strikes down law blocking disparaging trademarks
The ruling could benefit the NFL's Washington Redskins, whose trademark was canceled based on the same law in a separate proceeding.
"Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and dangerous extension of the government-speech doctrine, for other systems of government registration (such as copyright) could easily be characterized in the same way," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.
"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," Alito added. "If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social 'volatility,' free speech would be endangered."
The case at hand involves Simon Tam, an Asian-American musician and political activist who named his rock band "The Slants" in an attempt to take back a term that once directed as an insult. He sought to register the name with the trademark office.
The request was denied on the ground that it is disparaging to "persons of Asian descent."
But it has wider impact.
"The case also has obvious implications for the similar dispute involving the Washington Redskins, who had their trademark canceled under the same statute and theory that the justices invalidated today," said Steve Vladeck, CNN legal analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of law. "It should now follow that their trademark also should not have been invalidated."
The Washington Redskins Attorney Lisa Blatt said the team was "thrilled" with the decision.
"The Team is thrilled with today's unanimous decision as it resolves the Redskins' long-standing dispute with the government," she told CNN in a statement. "The Supreme Court vindicated the Team's position that the First Amendment blocks the government from denying or canceling a trademark registration based on the government's opinion."