Federal appellate court rejects ‘Stop the Islamization of America’ trademark

The case is today’s In re Geller & Spencer (Fed. Cir. May 13, 2014):

Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act provides that the Board may refuse an application when the trademark “[c]onsists of or comprises … matter which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) (emphasis added). Although neither party was able to identify a prior case in this court or its predecessor setting forth the legal analysis for a § 2(a) refusal based on disparagement, all parties agree the proper inquiry was set forth by the Board in In re Lebanese Arak Corp.:

(1) what is the likely meaning of the matter in question, taking into account not only dictionary definitions, but also the relationship of the matter to the other elements in the mark, the nature of the goods or services, and the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace in connection with the goods or services; and

(2) if that meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group.

The court concludes that “Stop the Islamization of America” mark, as used by its promoters, is likely to be understood as “disparaging to a substantial composite” of Muslims, whether “Islamization” refers to conversion to Islam or to “a political movement to replace man-made laws with the religious laws of Islam.”

Note that this doesn’t stop anyone from using the slogan, “Stop the Islamization of America.” It simply denies the petitioners the special legal protections offered to registered trademarks, such as the greater ease in stopping third parties from using one’s registered trademark in commercial contexts.

My tentative view is that the general exclusion of marks that disparage persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols should be seen as unconstitutional. Trademark registration, I think, is a government benefit program open to a wide array of speakers with little quality judgment. Like other such programs (such as broadly available funding programs, tax exemptions, or access to government property), it should be seen as a form of “limited public forum,” in which the government may impose content-based limits but not viewpoint-based ones. An exclusion of marks that disparage groups while allowing marks that praise those groups strikes me as viewpoint discrimination. But I’m not sure that courts will ultimately see this my way; so far they haven’t been inclined to do so, precisely because the exclusion of a mark from federal registration leaves people entirely free to use the mark.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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