Denying Trademark for Scandalous Speech

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Recently in Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court held that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional. The disparagement clause prevented registration of disparaging trademarks — i.e., marks that were offensively disparaging toward individuals — such that the clause could have induced mark owners to refrain from speaking offensive views. The potential for self-censorship led the Court to recognize a First Amendment violation. Importantly, the Justices unanimously agreed that the clause was viewpoint discriminatory. Viewpoint discrimination was damning. This central point of Tam calls into question another clause in the Lanham Act — the scandalous clause — which prevents registration of marks that are offensive to the public’s sense of decency and propriety. Simply put, does Tam suggest the unconstitutionality of the scandalous clause? The Federal Circuit recently answered this question in In re Brunetti, holding that in view of Tam, the scandalous clause violated the First Amendment. This Essay concludes otherwise. The Essay argues that the scandalous clause does not violate the First Amendment if the clause is interpreted as restricting only sexually-explicit and vulgar content. In particular, this interpretation implies that the clause is viewpoint neutral because viewpoint discrimination entails the government targeting content that communicates an opposable view — i.e., an opinion or assertion. Content that is sexually explicit or vulgar does not communicate an opposable view: sexually-explicit content exists to stimulate a sexual response; vulgar content exists to evoke emotive force. Neither represents an opinion that may be disagreed with. Indeed, unlike in Tam, the offensiveness of such content does not stem from any idea that the content proposes. Rather, the offensiveness derives from the public display and social effects of the content. And that matters in the viewpoint analysis. Furthermore, the proper framework for evaluating the scandalous clause’s restriction of speech must be the limited public forum. Under that framework, various reasons justify the content-based restriction of the scandalous clause. Thus, as a viewpoint-neutral restriction that is justified under the limited-public-forum doctrine, the scandalous clause is constitutional.


Copyright © 2018 Ned Snow.

Previously published in UC Davis Law Review Volume 51, Issue 5