Skip to content

Rebecca Tushnet, Bad Spaniels, Counterfeit Methodists, and Lying Birds: How Trademark Law Reinvented Strict Scrutiny, SSRN (Mar. 13, 2023).

Abstract: Does trademark law cover noncommercial speech, defined as it is in First Amendment doctrine as speech that does more than merely propose a commercial transaction? This basic question has three different answers, all regularly used in any given jurisdiction. The answers are yes, no, and sometimes, a list both comprehensive and dismaying. The Supreme Court is presently considering a case that may require it to choose—or may leave the field more confused than ever. In response to the massive expansion of trademark’s scope over the last century, lower courts have implicitly devised a compromise by which trademark is pulled back to a more traditional anti-fraud-like scope when it is applied to noncommercial speech sold in the marketplace, such as movies, newspapers, songs, and visual art, or used as the name of an organization with dues-paying members, such as a political party or congregation. This compromise explains an otherwise surprising feature of the cases: Political speakers and religious speakers can expect worse outcomes than “commercial” publishers engaged in noncommercial speech, given the kinds of cases brought against them. Of particular note, churches can be prohibited from using names that their worshipers sincerely believe are accurate descriptions of their faith. Although the doctrines articulated by courts are confused and sometimes directly contradictory, the results approximate what would happen if First Amendment strict scrutiny were applied to trademark claims brought against noncommercial speech—as long as material deception, not consciousness of wrongdoing, is the standard for liability. We would be better positioned to understand the law and to decide future cases if courts were honest about their uses of the commercial/noncommercial line to police whether trademark law can be used for more than anti-fraud purposes. Understanding the relationship of noncommercial speech to trademark law also offers broader insights into the relevance of scienter and actual deception for speech regulation.