By Laura Jordan
A few years ago, the federal government dissected a certain four-letter word. It was prodded to see if it would “shock . . . the sense of truth, decency, or propriety” of the American public. It was weighed to determine if it would “giv[e] offense to the conscience or moral feelings.” And it was placed under the microscope to judge its “disgraceful[ness]” and “offensive[ness].” That four-letter word survived the scrutiny and is alive and kicking today. In fact, it was the scrutiny measures themselves that ultimately received the knife, cut out as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court over the summer.
The four-letter word under debate was not one of the typical variety tossed around in casual settings, but it was close enough. Plaintiff Erik Brunetti was trying to trademark the name “FUCT” as the title of his clothing brand. He claimed that the four letters were to be pronounced individually, as in “F-U-C-T.” However, as Justice Kagan pointed out in the majority opinion, “[Y]ou might read it differently and, if so, you would hardly be alone.” The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) certainly did, and they rejected Brunetti’s application.
The PTO’s statutory authority to govern the trademark registration process is found in the Lanham Act, which is codified in 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051 et seq. Under § 1051, the PTO is allowed to subject the proposed trademark to scrutiny under the “factors set forth in subsections (a) through (e)” within § 1052. In particular, § 1052(a) allowed the PTO to scrutinize whether the proposed trademark “comprise[d] immoral . . . or scandalous matter.” If so, the trademark could be rejected. The PTO decided that FUCT fit squarely within the proscribed category, deploring it as “highly offensive,” “vulgar,” and sexually reprehensible. Brunetti pushed back against the rejection and won in the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The circuit court found that the PTO’s ban against “immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter” was not in line with the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court then took the statutory phrase under consideration, turning to its 2017 decision in Matal v. Tam for guidance. In Matal, the Court examined whether the PTO could refuse registration to trademarks that “‘disparage’ any ‘person, living or dead’” within § 1052(a). Simon Tam, of the band “The Slants,” had fought a lengthy battle to trademark the band’s name in order “to ‘reclaim’ and ‘take ownership’ of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity.” However, the PTO rejected the trademark, reasoning that “the fact that an applicant may be a member of that group or has good intentions underlying its use of a term does not obviate the fact that a substantial composite of the reference group would find the term objectionable.” Ultimately, the Court decided that “if a trademark registration bar is viewpoint-based, it is unconstitutional” and that the PTO’s “disparagement bar was viewpoint-based.”
With that holding in mind, the Court reasoned that “if the ‘immoral or scandalous’ bar similarly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint, it must also collide with our First Amendment doctrine.” Looking to dictionary definitions of “immoral” and finding results such as “inconsistent with rectitude, purity, or good morals,” the majority found that this statutory language is entirely viewpoint-based. It upholds “conventional moral standards” while rejecting as impure other ideas that may not be as mainstream. The Court lightheartedly pointed out that a mark such as “ALWAYS BE CRUEL” would not survive this scrutiny. In the past, the PTO has taken the traditional side of morally-contested arguments, rejecting drug-positive trademarks such as “YOU CAN’T SPELL HEALTHCARE WITHOUT THC” and “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” while registering “SAY NO TO DRUGS—REALITY IS THE BEST TRIP IN LIFE.” Thus, the immoral-or-scandalous bar, as written, allowed the government to approve some viewpoints over others.
In arguing that the immoral-or-scandalous bar is constitutionally sound, the Government attempted to narrow the phrase to only “marks that are ‘vulgar’—meaning ‘lewd,’ ‘sexually explicit or profane.’” If it were so narrow, then it would be constitutionally sound. But the majority rejected this reasoning and found that the phrase encompasses much more:
It covers the universe of immoral or scandalous—or (to use some PTO synonyms) offensive or disreputable—material. Whether or not lewd or profane. Whether the scandal and immorality comes from mode or instead from viewpoint. To cut the statute off where the Government urges is not to interpret the statute Congress enacted, but to fashion a new one.
In striking down the statutory phrase, the majority therefore paved the way for the “FUCT” trademark.
So, with this decision, can Americans now trademark whatever the FUCT they want to? Justice Sotomayor seemed to worry about that perhaps unintended consequence. In her concurrence in part and dissent in part, she wrote,
The Court’s decision today will beget unfortunate results. With the Lanham Act’s scandalous-marks provision, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), struck down as unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, the Government will have no statutory basis to refuse (and thus no choice but to begin) registering marks containing the most vulgar, profane, or obscene words and images imaginable.
However, Justice Alito stood up in his concurrence for the sanctity of free speech, arguing that “[a]t a time when free speech is under attack, it is especially important for this Court to remain firm on the principle that the First Amendment does not tolerate viewpoint discrimination.”
Whichever side you are on, now might be the best time to go get that trademark registered.
 See Iancu v. Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. 2294, 2297 (2019).
 Id. at 2298.
 Id. at 2302.
 Id. at 2297.
 15 U.S.C. § 1051(d)(1) (2012).
 § 1052(a).
 § 1051(d)(1).
 Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. at 2298.
 See generally 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017).
 Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. at 2298.
 Matal, 137 S. Ct. at 1754.
 Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. at 2299.
 Id. at 2300.
 Id. at 2301.
 Id. at 2301–02.
 Id. at 2308 (Sotomayor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).
 Id. at 2303–04 (Alito, J., concurring).