The Slants Trademark Case Gets Supreme Court Hearing

Andre G

PHOTO CREDIT: NPR

For Oregon band The Slants, it seems “offensive” is all relative. That’s the case they were trying to raise yesterday to the Supreme Court in a tug of war over their right to trademark their name. The Slants tried to trademark their name three times, finally being approved on the third attempt in 2015 after an appeals court ruled that the US Patent and Trademark office and Department of Justice’s denial on grounds of “disparagement” violated the group’s first amendment rights.

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Michelle K. Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) petitioned the high court in April 2016, and the case is still up in the air.

Slant” is used by some as a derogation towards Asian people, but group founder and bassist Simon Tam aims to flip the term and turn it into a prideful phrase as other marginalized groups have done. The Justice Department is steadfast that allowing it to be trademarked sets a dangerous precedent.

For his part, Tam said the following in a statement:

I’ve spent almost 8 years in court – almost a quarter of my life – so that I could fight for marginalized communities to have their voices protected. Voices that are often silenced in fear of a football team regaining their trademark registrations. Our obsession to punish villainous characters should not justify the collateral damage that the undeserved experience. Part of taking up the cost was possibly being forever associated with a team who I find disagreeable, but it was for the greater good of justice. Being the target of both white supremacist groups and even a few organizations that normally support my work will all be worth it if it means a more equitable society. I hope that our case encourages others towards having robust conversations of racial justice in order to create better law.”

In a problematic parallel, this decision could have ramifications on the efforts of Washington’s NFL team, whose “Redskins” name was canceled by the trademark office last year after frequent legal challenges from the indigenous people of America. If the Slants succeed in trademarking their name, they could inadvertently help a football team that many feel have a less respectable claim to their disparaging term. That’s the delicate balance the Supreme Court is dealing with in a landmark free speech case.

In other news, The Slants released “From The Heart,” a single from their forthcoming, cleverly-titled The Band Who Must Not Be Named EP. Of the title, group vocalist Ken Shima says, “If we can’t have our name then what else can we do? Just be hushed and pushed away? So even if we censored it, chances are you still know what we’re talking about.”

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