U.S. Supreme Court weighs foul language trademarks

Daily News Article   —   Posted on April 15, 2019

(Editor’s note: contains language that some readers may find offensive, paragraphs 1, 13, 14, 16, 19, 22 and 23)

(by Andrew Chung, Reuters) WASHINGTON — …On Monday, [the U.S. Supreme Court will] hear arguments in a free-speech case brought by Los Angeles-based clothing designer Erik Brunetti. His streetwear brand “FUCT” – which sounds like, but is spelled differently than, a profanity – was denied a trademark by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. [Brunetti says FUCT stands for “Friends U Can’t Trust.”]

Brunetti has [dismissed] concern about the potential for foul language during arguments in the [court]. In a written brief, his lawyer told the justices “the discussion will be purely clinical, analogous to when medical terms are discussed.”

At issue is a provision of U.S. trademark law that lets the trademark office deny requests for trademarks on “immoral” and “scandalous” words and symbols. Brunetti, 50, is challenging the law as an infringement of his right to freedom of expression, protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

In 2017, a Washington-based federal appeals court ruled in his favor. The Trump administration has appealed that ruling to the…Supreme Court. The provision at issue has been on the books for more than a century.

…The main concern, the administration said, is all the expletives and sexually graphic imagery that would flow into the marketplace if the law were to be struck down.

For Brunetti, the government’s fears are hypothetical.

“There are always going to be people who are offended, but you can’t control how everybody thinks,” Brunetti said in an interview. “When it has to do with the First Amendment, it’s a slippery slope.”

The justices struck down a different trademark law forbidding the registration of “disparaging” trademarks in a 2017 case involving an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants, a name that trademark officials deemed offensive to Asians. Speech may not be banned even if it expresses ideas that offend, the court ruled.

Banning vulgar terms and sexually indecent images is different because it does not discriminate against anyone’s viewpoint, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, said in a written brief. Instead, it “advances the government’s interest in encouraging the use of trademarks that are appropriate for all audiences, including children.”

The federal government, Francisco added, should not be forced through the trademark system to actively promote words and images the public would find shocking or profane.

Brunetti, who grew up skateboarding, saw a market for edgy streetwear and founded FUCT in 1990, with a focus on questioning authority. “That was the cleverness of it, that a majority of people think it’s pronounced ‘f#*ed,’” he said. The acronym, he added, also means “Friends U Can’t Trust.”

A trademark would make it easier to protect his brand against counterfeiters. But the FUCT trademark application, which was only filed in 2011, was denied. The trademark office said the brand would be perceived as the phonetic equivalent of the profanity, observing that Brunetti’s products contained sexual imagery, misogyny and violence.

“That sounds to me like every movie that has come out over the last 40 years,” Brunetti said, adding that his products are actually quite tame. “Should we start regulating the entertainment industry then?”

…Brunetti used to sell his wares in some retail stores, but has moved exclusively online, where his monthly lines sell out within hours. Among his recent products: A hoodie that reads, “We are Fuct.”

In its 2017 ruling in Brunetti’s favor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit – a court that specializes in intellectual property – noted the ubiquitous* nature (*constantly encountered; everywhere) of vulgar content, with or without trademarks, and said:

“In this electronic/Internet age, to the extent that the government seeks to protect the general population from scandalous material, with all due respect, it has completely failed.”

And it said the trademark office applies the law unevenly. Even other words referencing the same foul term as Brunetti’s have been approved, such as Fcuk, the court said. …

The Trump administration…emphasized the importance of targeting vulgar material, filing with the Federal Circuit a list of rejected registrations including drawings of sex acts, pictures of genitalia, and phrases like “F*#@ Off You F*%#ing F@*#.”

The administration said even more graphic and vulgar trademarks would be submitted for approval if this law were to be struck down, with a ripple effect that could reach beyond trademarks because all levels of government commonly exclude explicit pictures and profanity from places or programs they create.

“Even military cemeteries or public transportation advertising authorities could lose control over whether that graphic or profane content would be displayed on their property,” the administration said.

Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley.Published at Reuters .com. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from Thomson Reuters.


Approximately 7,500 cases are sent to the U.S. Supreme Court each year. Out of these, only 80 to 100 are actually heard by the Supreme Court. When a case comes to the Supreme Court, several things happen. First, the Justices get together to decide if a case is worthy of being brought before the Court. In other words, does the case really involve Constitutional or federal law? Secondly, a Supreme Court ruling can affect the outcome of hundreds or even thousands of cases in lower courts around the country. Therefore, the Court tries to use this enormous power only when a case presents a pressing constitutional issue.

(from supremecourt.gov/visiting/visitorsguidetooralargument.aspx)