PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Portland-based rock group The Slants got their day in court Wednesday. The Supreme Court.
The group has spent years locked in a First Amendment battle with the government, which refuses to register a trademark for the band’s name because it’s considered offensive to Asians.
That fight played out Wednesday in the nation’s highest court as the justices consider whether a law barring disparaging trademarks violates the band’s free-speech rights.
This case is also important for other entities — like the Washington Redskins — whose trademark was canceled by the federal government after a finding that it was disparaging to Native Americans.
After appearing in court on Wednesday, the band’s founder Simon “Young” Tam released the following statement:
“I’m confident that the Supreme Court will stand by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s decision in finding viewpoint discrimination through trademark registration unconstitutional.
What many people forget is that this process all started with the government denying me rights based on my race: even in court, the government agreed that our racial identities provided the context for ‘The Slants’ to be a racial slur rather than any other possible definition for the word. In other words, the government alluded that anyone could register ‘The Slants’ if they had the right context – or in this instance, if they were of the right race. That’s simply wrong. It perpetuates institutional racism.
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.”
Tam, 35, told CBS News he founded the all-Asian band in 2006, and the name was a key part of the group’s message.
“We have an outdated, obscure racial slur that we want to flip on its head and turn it into something powerful,” Tam told CBS News. “I was ridiculed as a kid for having slanted eyes. Now I’m saying it’s something I can be proud of, not something to be ashamed of.”
In 2015, The Slants lost a battle when the federal appeals court refused to overturn a decision by the U.S Patent and Trademark Office to not grant a trademark on their name.
Tam, the bass player and manager for The Slants, told KOIN 6 News he totally disagreed with the ruling.
“When you talk about the law, they say the only opinion that matters is that of the Asian community,” he said at that time. “Well, everyone in my band is Asian and we play for hundreds of Asian-American events throughout North America.”
He said the trademark office lawyers “have not talked to a single Asian-American about our case, so they’re making a lot of assumptions here about what our community actually believes.”
Their music, he said, is Chinatown Dance Rock. “It’s kind of like this ’80s inpsired synth rock with Asian-American influences,” he told KOIN 6 News.
CBS News reports First Amendment lawyer Megan Brown points to other bands that refer to race in their name whose trademarks have been approved — like NWA and Uncle Kracker – as proof the government’s definition of what may be offensive is inconsistent.
A divided federal appeals court handed the band a victory four years later, ruling that the law prohibiting offensive trademarks is unconstitutional.
“Whatever our personal feelings about the mark at issue here, or other disparaging marks, the First Amendment forbids government regulators to deny registration because they find the speech likely to offend others,” Judge Kimberly Moore said for the majority.
As for the Slants, the band just released a new song called “From the Heart” about the upcoming case. Tam says it’s “like an open letter to the trademark office saying we’re not going to give up, we’re going to continue fighting for what’s ours.”
The song is on the band’s latest album “The Band Who Must Not Be Named.”
Tam told CBS that if the Supreme Court rules against the band, they won’t change their name — but it will be harder without a trademark to get signed with a record label or protect their brand.
Both CBS News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.