S.F. ARTS & ATHLETICS, INC. V. USOC, 483 U. S. 522 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

S.F. Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. USOC, 483 U.S. 522 (1987)

San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v.

United States Olympic Committee

No. 86-270

Argued March 24, 1987

Decided June 25, 1987

483 U.S. 522


Section 110 of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 (Act) grants respondent United States Olympic Committee (USOC) the right to prohibit certain commercial and promotional uses of the word "Olympic" and various Olympic symbols. Petitioner San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. (SFAA), a nonprofit California corporation, promoted the "Gay Olympic Games," to be held in 1982, by using those words on its letterheads and mailings, in local newspapers, and on various merchandise sold to cover the costs of the planned Games. The USOC informed the SFAA of the existence of the Act and requested that it terminate use of the word "Olympic" in its description of the planned Games. When the SFAA failed to do so, the USOC brought suit in Federal District Court for injunctive relief. The court granted the USOC summary judgment and a permanent injunction. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Act granted the USOC exclusive use of the word "Olympic" without requiring the USOC to prove that the unauthorized use was confusing and without regard to the defenses available to an entity sued for a trademark violation under the Lanham Act. The court also found that the USOC's property right in the word and its associated symbols and slogans can be protected without violating the First Amendment. The court did not reach the SFAA's claim that the USOC's enforcement of its rights was discriminatory in violation of the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, because it held that the USOC is not a governmental actor to which the Constitution applies.


1. There is no merit to the SFAA's contention that § 110 grants the USOC nothing more than a trademark in the word "Olympic," and precludes its use by others only when it tends to cause confusion. Nor is there any merit to the argument that § 110's reference to Lanham Act remedies should be read as incorporating traditional defenses as well. Section 110's language and legislative history indicate that Congress intended to grant the USOC exclusive use of the word "Olympic" without regard to whether use of the word tends to cause confusion, and that § 110 does not incorporate defenses available under the Lanham Act. Pp. 483 U. S. 528-530

Page 483 U. S. 523

2. Also without merit is the SFAA's argument that the word "Olympic" is a generic word that constitutionally cannot gain trademark protection under the Lanham Act, and that the First Amendment prohibits Congress from granting a trademark in the word. When a word acquires value as the result of organization and the expenditure of labor, skill, and money by an entity, that entity constitutionally may obtain a limited property right in the word. Congress reasonably could conclude that the commercial and promotional value of the word "Olympic" was the product of the USOC's talents and energy, the end result of much time, effort, and expense. In view of the history of the origins and associations of the word "Olympic," Congress' decision to grant the USOC a limited property right in the word falls within the scope of trademark law protections, and thus within constitutional bounds. Pp. 483 U. S. 532-535.

3. The First Amendment does not prohibit Congress from granting exclusive use of a word without requiring that the authorized user prove that an unauthorized use is likely to cause confusion. The SFAA claims that its use of the word "Olympic" was intended to convey a political statement about the status of homosexuals in society, and that § 110 may not suppress such speech. However, by prohibiting the use of one word for particular purposes, neither Congress nor the USOC has prohibited the SFAA from conveying its message. Section 110's restrictions on expressive speech are properly characterized as incidental to the primary congressional purpose of encouraging and rewarding the USOC's activities. Congress has a broad public interest in promoting, through the USOC's activities, the participation of amateur athletes from the United States in the Olympic Games. Even though § 110's protection may exceed traditional rights of a trademark owner in certain circumstances, the Act's application to commercial speech is not broader than necessary to protect the legitimate congressional interests, and therefore does not violate the First Amendment. Congress reasonably could find that the use of the word by other entities to promote an athletic event would directly impinge on the USOC's legitimate right of exclusive use. The mere fact that the SFAA claims an expressive, as opposed to a purely commercial, purpose does not give it a First Amendment right to appropriate the value which the USOC's efforts have given to the word. Pp. 483 U. S. 535-541.

4. The SFAA's claim that the USOC has enforced its § 110 rights in a discriminatory manner in violation of the Fifth Amendment fails, because the USOC is not a governmental actor to whom the Fifth Amendment applies. The fact that Congress granted it a corporate charter does not render the USOC a Government agent. Moreover, Congress' intent to help the USOC obtain funding does not change the analysis. Nor does the USOC perform functions that are traditionally the exclusive

Page 483 U. S. 524

prerogative of the Federal Government. The USOC's choice of how to enforce its exclusive right to use the word "Olympic" simply is not a governmental decision. Pp. 483 U. S. 542-547.

781 F.2d 733 and 789 F.2d 1319, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II, and III of which BLACKMUN and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 483 U. S. 548. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 483 U. S. 548.

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