The Supreme Court agreed to review the US Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) challenge to a February 2022 ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In the ruling at issue, the Federal Circuit held that applying Sec. 2(c) of the Lanham Act (which bars registration of a trademark that consists of or comprises a name of a particular living individual without their written consent) may unconstitutionally restrict free speech in violation of the First Amendment in certain instances. Vidal v. Elster, Docket No. 22-704 (Supr. Ct., June 5, 2023).
In 2018, Steve Elster filed an application to register the mark TRUMP TOO SMALL for use on t-shirts, in reference to a 2016 Republican presidential primary debate exchange between then-candidate Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). The PTO examining attorney and subsequently the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board refused registration of the mark on grounds that it clearly referred to former President Trump, and that Elster did not have written consent to use former President Trump’s name, in violation of Sec. 2(c) of the Lanham Act. On Elster’s appeal, the Federal Circuit ruled that the Board’s refusal to register the trademark TRUMP TOO SMALL for use on t-shirts involved content-based discrimination that was not justified by a compelling or substantial government interest.
Following PTO Director Vidal’s January 2023 petition for a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court granted cert and will consider whether the First Amendment allows content-based but viewpoint-neutral restrictions on which trademarks may be registered—and in this case, the PTO’s restriction on marks that consist of or comprise a name identifying a particular living individual (such as former President Donald Trump) except by their written consent.
The issue on which cert was granted: Whether the refusal to register a trademark under 15 U.S.C. § 1052(c) violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment when the mark contains criticism of a government official or public figure.