by Amber Healy
In a unanimous decision Monday morning, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of The Slants, the Portland, Oregon-based band that’s been fighting for years for the right to trademark their name.
In a statement released by their publicist, bassist and band founder Simon Tam says that after the
“excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years, we’re beyond humbled and thrilled to have won this case at the Supreme Court.
This journey has always been much bigger than our band: It’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves. During the fight, we found the (US Patent and) Trademark Office justifying the denial of rights to people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation and political views, simply because they disagreed with the message of these groups. To that end, they knowingly used false and misleading information, supported by questionable sources such as UrbanDictionary.com, while placing undue burdens on vulnerable communities and small business owners by forcing them into a lengthy, expensive and biased appeals process. The Supreme Court has vindicated First Amendment rights not only for The Slants, but all Americans who are fighting against paternal government policies that ultimately lead to viewpoint discrimination.”
The USPTO had denied the Slants’ trademark because it deemed the term disparaging to the Asian American community, ignoring that the members of the band are themselves Asian Americans. In previous court appearances, Tam often found himself unable to speak on behalf of his band and their decision to use this particular name, instead watching teams of white lawyers on both sides discuss what was and was not considered inflammatory or racist speech. He’s often noted that the band and its its name have strong support in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, unlike the Washington Redskins, currently engaged in their own legal battle over the team’s trademark. The football team had tried to convince the Supreme Court to hear their case instead of The Slants but they were denied.
USPTO had used Section 2A of the Lanham Act, an old and often overlooked or forgotten piece of US law, to justify rejecting The Slants’ application for trademark.
In the opinion, released this morning as the court’s term nears its end, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the bench that
“the disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech.”
“When I started this band, it was about creating a bold portrayal of Asian American culture,” Tam says in the statement released this morning. “The establishment of an Asian American band was a political act in and of itself, even though we never considered ourselves as a political group. However, as we continued writing music about our experiences, we realized that activism would be integrated into our art as well. I’m proud our band members have helped raise over $1 million for issues affecting Asian Americans, that we’ve worked with dozens of social justice organizations and that we could humanize important issues around identity and speech in new and nuanced ways. So we became part art and part activism.”