What does the First Amendment protect?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The Supreme Court has recognized the threat to freedom of speech. In Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25, 91 S.Ct. 1780, 1788, 29 L.Ed.2d 284 (1971), it was decided that the right to speak freely that is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States includes the right to criticize others, voice highly controversial opinions, and comment on public interest matters. The First Amendment also protects free speech of extreme statements and intentional exaggeration when it is clear the statements are insincere and done to frustrate the target, and is not defamation but opinion, satire, or parody.
The first step with free speech and the First Amendment and trademark law is whether the speech in question is commercial or noncommercial. Commercial speech is bound by the laws of the Lanham Act and is subject to less and sometimes no First Amendment protection. Noncommercial speech is not bound by the Lanham Act or trademark law, and is guaranteed complete and full First Amendment protection. In fact, trademark law specifically exempts noncommercial speech so that the law will not infringe on the First Amendment. One case that supports this paragraph is Taubman Co. v. Webfeats, 319 F.3d 770, 774-75 (6th Cir. 2003). Another supporting precedent is Nissan Motor Co. v. Nissan Computer Corp., 378 F.3d 1002, 1015-18 (9th Cir. 2004).
There are many cases supporting that negative consumer commentary is core speech protected by the First Amendment. Another case supporting this is, Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union, 466 U.S. 485 (1984) Many other cases treat criticisms of a company, their business practices, products and services, as speech protected by the First Amendment. Criticism would be pointless if the person cannot name the company they are bashing by using its trademarks. The Fourth Circuit explained that just because speech is critical of a corporation or company and its business practices, it is not a sufficient reason to prevent or enjoin the speech. If a trademark owner could “enjoin the use of his mark in a noncommercial context found to be negative or offensive, then a corporation could shield itself from criticism by forbidding the use of its name in commentaries critical of its conduct.” CPC Int’l., Inc. v. Skippy Inc., 214 F.3d 456, 462 (4th Cir. 2000) (quoting L.L. Bean v. Drake Publishers, 811 F.2d 26, 33 (1st Cir. 1987)).
Congress has decided that the Lanham Act ONLY applies to commercial speech. Under § 43 (15 U.S.C. §1125) explicitly defines that noncommercial use is not actionable. “The following shall not be actionable under this section: . . . (B) Noncommercial use of the mark.”
15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) (1). The Lanham Act defines “use in commerce” as meaning “bona fide use of a mark in the ordinary course of trade,” such as using the mark in conjunction with services or goods in commerce. 15 U.S.C. § 1127. Without “use in commerce” “in connection with goods and services,” there is no trademark infringement. Int’l Bancorp, LLC v. Societe des Bains de Mer et duInternational Bancorp, LLC, 329 F.3d 359, 363 (4th Cir. 2003); People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) v. Doughney, 263 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2001); see also S. Rep. No. 100-515, at 44 (1988), reprinted in 1988 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5577, 5607 (“Amendment of the definition of ‘use in commerce’ [in § 45 of the Lanham Act) is one of the most far-reaching changes the legislation contains. . . . The committee intends that the revised definition of ‘use in commerce’ be interpreted to mean commercial use which is typical in a particular industry.”). Basically, the Lanham act excludes all noncommercial speech. Nissan, 378 F.3d at 1016-17; see also TMI, Inc. v. Maxwell, 368 F.3d 433, 436-38 (5th Cir. 2004), and even excludes commercial speech that does not use marks “in connection with goods or services.” PETA, 263 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2001).
Despite many corporations using intimidation to try to silence people from speaking their minds and using lawsuits, and threats of lawsuits, the Constitution continuously protects free speech.
It excludes commercial speech precisely for the purpose of avoiding infringement of First Amendment rights. Taubman, 319 F.3d at 774-75 (6th Cir. 2003); Nissan, 378 F.3d at 1016-17. Thus, when an action is brought against a noncommercial use of a trademark for either political or consumer commentary, such as the SLAPP cases with Walmart, Starbucks, and others, the courts do not usually hesitate to grant the defendant full First Amendment protection by holding that trademark law does not apply and that First Amendment protects such speech. See CPC Int’l, 214 F.3d at 461-64 (4th Cir. 2000); Nissan, 378 F.3d at 1017-18 (9th Cir. 2004); L.L. Bean, 811 F.2d at 33.
Noncommercial Speech Is NOT Subject to Trademark Law AND Is Fully Protected by the First Amendment. Trademark law explicitly exempts noncommercial speech such as the alleged emails and website(s) precisely so that the law will not run afoul of the First Amendment. Taubman, 319 F.3d at 774 (6th Cir. 2003); Nissan, 378 F.3d at 1016-17 (9th Cir. 2004). Numerous cases show that consumer commentary is core speech protected by the First Amendment. See, e.g., Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union, 466 U.S. 485 (1984) (New York Times standard applied in libel action brought by a manufacturer claiming that consumer group had maligned its product). Many other cases similarly treat criticisms of a company’s products or business practices as speech protected by the First Amendment. The criticisms would be pointless if they did not identify the company they were criticizing and by using its trademarks. The Fourth Circuit explained: This is an admittedly partisan account and one that vexes [the plaintiff]. Yet just because speech is critical of a corporation and its business practices is not a sufficient reason to enjoin the speech. As the First Circuit stated, if a trademark owner could “enjoin the use of his mark in a noncommercial context found to be negative or offensive, then a corporation could shield itself from criticism by forbidding the use of its name in commentaries critical of its conduct.” CPC Int’l., Inc. v. Skippy Inc., 214 F.3d 456, 462 (4th Cir. 2000) (quoting L.L. Bean v. Drake Publishers, 811 F.2d 26, 33 (1st Cir. 1987)). Congress has therefore limited the application of the Lanham Act to commercial speech. First, § 43(c) expressly excludes noncommercial use of marks from the entire section’s reach: “The following shall not be actionable under this section: . . . (B) Noncommercial use of the mark.” 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c) (4) (emphasis added). Section (c) (4) was added to the Act when it was amended in 1989. The House Judiciary Committee made explicit that the purpose was to avoid any impact on noncommercial speech: The proposed change in Section 43(a) should not be read in any way to limit political speech, consumer or editorial comment, parodies, satires, or other constitutionally protected material. . . .