NewYorkUniversity
LawReview

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Free Speech

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Countering the “Thought We Hate” with Reappropriation Use Under Trademark Law

Esther H. Sohn

In 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the disparagement clause of § 2(a) of the Lanham Act as contravening the First Amendment. Against the backdrop of the Washington Redskins controversy, Matal v. Tam foreclosed the question of challenging federal registrations of disparaging trademarks. The case, however, opened up the opportunity to explore how disparaged groups could work within the framework of federal trademark law to restrict the right to exclusive use that owners of disparaging trademarks possess. Just as offending groups have a constitutional right to free speech, disparaged groups should be allowed to counter disparaging trademarks with “reappropriation use”—unauthorized uses of disparaging trademarks with the purpose of reclaiming “the thought that we hate”—and still be protected under the First Amendment against infringement claims. This Note proposes a novel, three-step reappropriation use defense for courts to apply, demonstrating how federal trademark law could ensure that groups like The Slants have a platform to reclaim terms and still protect disparaged groups seeking to reappropriate disparaging trademarks.