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6.19.2017

The Slants win Supreme Court battle over band name

Asian American rock band wins the right to trademark their "disparaging" band name.



'The Slants have won the right to trademark their band name. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that even trademarks considered to be derogatory deserve First Amendment protection, in a ruling that could have significant impact on how speech protection is applied in other trademark cases.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Rule Against Disparaging Trademarks

The Slants' frontman, Simon Tam, filed a lawsuit after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the band from registering its name, and rejected repeat appeals, citing a section of the 1946 Lanham Act, a federal law that prohibits registration of trademarks that "disparage" or "bring into contempt or disrepute" persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols. Tam contended that the 70-year-old law violates free speech rights.

In an 8-0 ruling, the court agreed with The Slants, determining the law's disparagement clause violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

"The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion for the court. "If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social 'volatility,' free speech would be endangered."



The Slants have maintained that they chose their band name precisely because it is seen as offensive, in an effort to reclaim and reappropriate the slur into something positive and empowering. If you've ever listened to The Slants' music, you know their unique brand of "Chinatown dance rock" unabashedly reflects this spirit.

I should note that I've been a supporter of The Slants and their fight to trademark their name since almost the beginnings of their seven-year conflict with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I even lent my name to one of their many documents of community support during some of the early appeal proceedings. For me, the heart of this issue has been the laughably arbitrary and questionable standards by which the USPTO determines what is and is not "disparaging" with regard to The Slants and other applicants.

Shouldn't we, as Asian Americans, be allowed to determine what is "offensive" to us? I understand the sentiment behind barring disparaging remarks. But there has to be some room in this discussion for communities to reclaim and reappropriate words that were once and still considered offensive. Not blanket determinations based on anecdotal evidence or -- I kid you not -- entries from urbandictionary.com.

This is a landmark ruling, and it will no doubt have significant implications for, as pretty much all commentators have invariably pointed out, the ongoing debate over the Washington Redskins team name.

By the way, fuck the Washington Redskins.

For now, hats off to The Slants at the close of many years of struggle and a hard-fought victory.

More here: The Slants Win Supreme Court Battle Over Band's Name In Trademark Dispute