Lee Corso (former coach and ESPN football analyst) frequently utters this famous sports media catchphrase on ESPN’s “College GameDay” program: “Not so fast, my friend!”
The first three words of that phrase come to mind upon hearing that THRILLED Daniel Snyder (majority owner of the NFL football franchise nearest the Nation’s Capitol) is celebrating Simon Tam’s (and Tam’s talented lawyers’) recent victory at the Supreme Court.
Excluded are the last two words as inapplicable, as I’ve never met Mr. Snyder, so I can’t say he’s my friend, and if even a small fraction of what Rolling Stone says about him is true, friendship seems unlikely, unless of course, he engages the services of an expert to rebrand the franchise (without the racial slur), something I asked for eight years ago.
Yet, “not so fast,” as a week ago, the government filed a brief with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, asking the Federal Circuit to affirm the TTAB’s refusal to register FUCT based on the scandalous portion of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, despite Tam.
The Department of Justice further contends that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tam does not implicate the First Amendment in terms of scandalous matter, because unlike the stricken disparagement portion of 2(a), the remaining scandalous portion is viewpoint neutral.
To the extent the Justice Department prevails and the current bar on registration of “scandalous” matter survives First Amendment scrutiny with the Federal Circuit’s review in the Brunetti case, this could impact Daniel Snyder’s currently suspended R-Word trademark applications (here, here, and here), and the NFL’s suspended Boston Redskins application.
While the decades-old R-Word registrations challenged in Harjo and Blackhorse appear safe from cancellation given the ruling in Tam, what stops others from opposing registration of any future R-Word applications (or any of the currently suspended applications, if published) as containing scandalous matter in violation of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act?
If the scandalous bar to registration survives First Amendment scrutiny, opposers (unlike cancellation petitioners) would have the significant benefit of only needing to show (at the time of an opposition decision) that the current R-Word applications have scandalous matter.
It’s a question of the timing of proof necessary, in other words, no time machine would be required to determine how the relevant public perceived the R-Word marks back in the late 1960s when the first R-Word registration issued for the team; those would not be at issue.
It’s also a question of who comprises the relevant public. For disparaging matter, it was Native Americans. For scandalous matter, it would be the general public, although not necessarily a majority, but instead a “substantial composite of the general public.”
The Act’s present prohibition on the registration of scandalous matter reaches matter that is “shocking to the sense of propriety, offensive to the conscience or moral feelings or calling out for condemnation.” Wouldn’t unambiguous racial slurs qualify for this treatment?
Who’s ready to carry the next, but new flame, if needed, to oppose registration of any R-Word applications that publish for opposition, contending that a substantial composite of the general public finds the applied-for marks “shocking” to their sense of propriety and/or “offensive” to their conscience?
Even those who fought hard to undue the disparagement provision of Section 2(a) for Simon Tam, see Daniel Snyder’s team name in a very different light, and let’s also say, not a very sympathetic light. And, the general public today is not the public from 50 years ago.
Finally, given the vast public attention and support this issue has received over the last quarter century, it would be more than interesting to see what kind of a record could be developed on the scandalous ground for registration refusal, today, and not decades ago.
So, not so fast, let’s see what happens to the scandalous portion of Section 2(a) in Brunetti, before allowing Daniel Snyder to celebrate Tam too strongly, my friends.
UPDATE: The NFL’s Boston Redskins trademark application has been removed from suspension, reports Erik Pelton, so, who will oppose if published, and why hasn’t the USPTO issued a new refusal on scandalous grounds yet?