Some background from SCOTUSblog:
This case arose when Erik Brunetti applied to register his trademark FUCT for use as a brand for clothing. Brunetti started a streetwear company in 1990 with professional skateboarder Natas Kaupas, and later applied to register the trademark with the USPTO. The examining attorney rejected Brunetti’s trademark application on the basis that the mark is a phonetic equivalent of a vulgar word. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal, finding that the examiner had provided sufficient evidence that a substantial composite of the general public would find the mark vulgar. The TTAB stressed that consideration of the constitutionality of Section 2(a) was beyond the scope of jurisdiction of the TTAB.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed that substantial evidence supported the board’s findings that the FUCT mark is vulgar and was therefore unregistrable under Section 2(a). However, it ultimately reversed the board’s holding. The Federal Circuit found that the bar on registering scandalous and immoral trademarks is a content-based restriction on free speech in violation of the First Amendment.
This case arises in the aftermath of, and perhaps as a natural consequence of, Matal v. Tam, which struck down the registration bar for the other type of offensive trademarks — those deemed disparaging. In Tam, the Supreme Court held that trademarks are private, not government, speech, and an examiner may not refuse to register trademarks based on the particular viewpoint the trademarks express. Because the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) denied registration to any trademark that was deemed disparaging by a substantial composite of the referenced group, it discriminated based on viewpoint: “Giving offense is a viewpoint.” The court found that whether strict scrutiny or a more lenient standard used to evaluate the constitutionality of restrictions on commercial speech under Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York applied, the provision could not withstand either level of review because it was not narrowly tailored to serve a substantial government interest. Justice Anthony Kennedy explained in his concurrence that “the central purpose of trademark registration is to facilitate source identification… Whether a mark is disparaging bears no plausible relation to that goal.”
There were legal gymnastics at oral argument not to say the word FUCT. More from SCOTUSBlog:
Sommer has pre-empted the warning that has typically come from the court about not using profane or vulgar language during arguments in past cases involving Paul Cohen’s “F**k the Draft” message on the jacket he wore in a courthouse, George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine (or the “seven words you can’t say on the public airwaves”), and the “isolated utterances” of obscene words on television.
An amicus brief on Brunetti’s side from the Cato Institute, besides offering its own thoughtful take on the importance of vulgar language in society, directs readers to a fascinating article in a 2012 issue of the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal by Thomas Krattenmaker, who was a law clerk to Justice John Marshall Harlan. In Cohen v. California, Harlan (and mostly Krattenmaker, by his account) wrote the opinion for the court that said the anti-draft message on the jacket was protected from criminal prosecution by the First Amendment.
Krattenmaker relates the well-known fact that before oral argument in Cohen in the fall of 1970, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger sought to head off the use of the offending word by telling Cohen’s lawyer that the justices were familiar with the facts of the case. But the lawyer, Melville Nimmer, used the word in response to the first question he received. Krattenmaker further relates that Nimmer worried that court security personnel might jump up and say, “He said F*** in the Supreme Court, grab him!”
No one grabbed Nimmer that day, of course.
One thing the justices seem to agree on this morning is that the Trademark Office has been thoroughly inconsistent in its treatment of trademark applications involving the “seven dirty words” and their variations.
Justice Neil Gorsuch refers to the appendix at the end of Brunetti’s merits brief, which provides a four-page guide to those inconsistencies with examples that would make any sailor blush.
“There are shocking numbers of ones granted and ones refused that do look remarkably similar,” Gorsuch says.
(The appendix is part of the printed “red brief,” but is a separate document in the court’s docket for the case. Parental Guidance suggested. And by that, we mean that some parents may need to consult their 20-something children for explanations.)
We weren’t surprised to learn that the motto on the wallet of Samuel L. Jackson’s character (Jules) in “Pulp Fiction” was rejected for federal trademark protection. (As Jules puts it in the classic 1994 Quentin Tarantino film, “It’s the one that says ‘Bad Mother F*****.’”)
When Stewart starts to discuss an example by spelling out a phonetic equivalent for the profane past participle form of the word at issue, Gorsuch cuts him off.
“I don’t want to go through the examples. I really don’t want to do that,” he says to laughter from the courtroom.