What Does Federal Trademark Law Have to do With Community Safety? Or, Let's Use Our Words, Part
When we try to restrict what people can discuss, we take away peoples’ option to use their words. This can create situations where people are frustrated at having only one perspective presented, like we see on so many college and university campuses, or -- much worse --
This issue was recently addressed in a Supreme Court case about trademarks.
The case dealt with an Asian-American band that tried to trademark their band name “The Slants.” The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied their application, saying that it was illegal to trademark a disparaging name. (This was the same argument used to cancel the trademarked name of the Washington “Redskins” football team.) The band fought all the way to the Supreme Court, where they won.
(One of the band members said he grew up being mocked by other kids using “a slant-eyed gesture to make fun of us.” He said that he “wanted to change it to something that was powerful, something that was considered beautiful or a point of pride instead” of something disparaging.)
The Supreme Court said that the name “The Slants” should be trademarked. It said that the government has no business playing “speech police.” It went on to note: “Giving offense is a viewpoint. The public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”
We have seen this dangerous encroachment upon free speech on our college and university campuses. It has become fashionable there to restrict certain viewpoints and speech merely because others might find them offensive. This has the effect of teaching people, wrongly, that they are entitled to exist in a bubble where someone else’s words may not offend them. Shouldn't we be teaching them instead that others have the right to express themselves as long as they do not put people in danger?
To be sure, there are obvious exceptions to this. If someone's words cross the line to incite violence or pose a threat to others, then yes. Let's take the appropriate measures to keep people safe, including limiting others’ right and ability to incite or threaten.
Limiting vigorous debate also deprives people of their option to use words to resolve disagreements. If you and I cannot debate a point to resolve it, then we lose the opportunity to present each other, peacefully, with evidence and arguments that might change our minds. Without this release valve, violence is more likely to erupt. We have seen recent tragic examples of what happens when something that should have been expressed in words ends in violence.
It has always been a key principle of the First Amendment that it protects speech precisely because it might offend some people. As recent events in Charlottesville have made clear, people often resort to violence if they cannot use their words. We know this.
To attempt to restrain speech because it is offensive is a mistake that can have tragic consequences. But restricting speech because some “speech police” conclude that it might offend me is not the answer. Instead of allowing this to happen, let’s use our words. Our families, friends, loved ones and communities will all be more secure as a result.