My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:
With the rush of news lately about Obamacare, Brexit, Trump and everything else happening in our world, one can be forgiven for missing that the Supreme Court of the United States rendered what may prove to be one of its most important decisions protecting the free speech rights of Americans. The background of the case stretches back into decades of American progressive culture.
For decades, many American liberals who preach fidelity to the 1st Amendment and free speech have been carving out more and more speech as unworthy of such protection. In the past, the answer to offensive speech was more speech. Americans were certainly free to say nasty things and express abhorrent thoughts, and other Americans would respond with contrary speech. Such debate is an underpinning of a free society.
Liberals in America have been slowly eroding that robust intellectual ethos by decreeing that some speech is so offensive that the speaker must not be allowed to say it or face severe penalties if they do. This anti-free speech attitude has manifested in our American culture in the form of safe spaces, trigger words, speech codes and the like. On many college campuses and other liberal institutions, the price for saying something that does not please the ruling regime — from Marquette University to ESPN — is ostracism, reprimand, and expulsion.
It was in this intolerant culture that Barack Obama and many his fellow travelers were incubated and they brought it with them when Obama became our president. It was just that sort of intolerance that seeped into the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
The USPTO has a very simple purpose. It to register the unique intellectual property of individual Americans. The USPTO is not responsible for enforcing trademarks or copyrights. It is merely an office that evaluates a trademark or invention to determine if it is unique, and if it is, to register it in an official government record. If a person has a trademark or copyright that they think is being violated, then that person must file a civil suit in federal or state court to have the court enforce it.
Under the Obama Administration, the USPTO tried to stretch its mission to not just register unique trademarks,but to enforce a liberal speech code on them and prohibit trademarks that they did not like. Under the auspices of a “disparagement clause,” the USPTO had taken to denying trademarks that would normally qualify, but were deemed “offensive” to some real or mythical constituency.
Such were the rubrics that a band called “The Slants” confronted when trying to register the name of their band. The USPTO denied their application for a trademark because the word “slant” is considered a derogatory term for Asians. The Slants are a group of Asian-Americans who are determined to reclaim anti-Asian stereotypes, so they filed suit against the USPTO to have their name protected. The end result was the Supreme Court ruling of last week in the case of Matal v. Tam.
In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court utterly repudiated the USPTOs position. In a clear, uncompromising ruling supported by the entire spectrum of judicial philosophies on the court, Justice Alito said that “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’” Indeed. There was a time when all Americans believed that.
The Supreme Court’s ruling has drawn a line across which government entities may not cross. This has implications across our nation in government offices, public universities, and every other area where our government has been firmly pushing the 1st Amendment into a small, controlled, “safe space.” Moving forward, every effort by public institutions to restrict and control speech must be measured against this ruling. Many of them will find themselves failing to meet its standard and Americans must hold them to account.