A US court has struck down part of a law that allows the government to ban disparaging trademarks, a move that could help the Washington Redskins as they seek to maintain their registered trademarks amid controversy.
The American football team has been under pressure from Native American groups who argue their name is racially tinged and offensive.
The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit focused on Simon Shiao Tam's application to trademark the name The Slants for his Asian-American rock band.
Tam was denied a registered trademark in 2011 because the examiner in the US Patent and Trade Office (PTO) found the name disparaging to people of Asian descent. Tam challenged that ruling, but it was upheld by an appeals court panel.
The court reversed that decision Tuesday, with Judge Kimberly Moore writing for the majority that the US Constitution "protects even hurtful speech."
"Whatever our personal feelings about the mark at issue here, or other disparaging marks, the First Amendment forbids government regulators to deny registration because they find the speech likely to offend others," the court concluded in a 9-3 ruling.
At issue is a 69-year-old law, known as the Lanham Act, which laid out the system for registering and protecting trademarks, while barring registration of disparaging or "immoral" marks.
In court filings, Tam said that by naming his band The Slants he sought to "reclaim" or "take ownership" of Asian stereotypes.
Tam's appellate victory may augur well for a much higher-profile case involving the Redskins, whose team name trademarks were canceled by the trademark agency in July.
Native American groups, backed by President Barack Obama, have called on the team to change its name, arguing it is a slur against tribes and symbolizes intolerance.
But team owner Daniel Snyder has vowed never to drop the Redskins moniker.
"We're pleased with the (Tuesday) decision," Lisa Blatt, a partner at Arnold & Porter who is a member of the Redskins legal team, told The New York Times.
The July decision is currently under appeal by the Fourth Circuit, which is not bound by the federal circuit ruling but may take it into account.
A Redskins registered trademark victory would be largely symbolic, as the team is expected to keep its name regardless of the ruling.
But having one's trademark registered does carry benefits, including the ability to sue in federal court those who infringe on the trademark.