A View from the (Supreme) Courtroom

After The Slants and their attorneys plead their case to the US Supreme Court Wednesday, the end point in a long, extended battle with the US Patent and Trademark Office to trademark their name, Simon Tam has issued a statement.

The case is being viewed as one of the most important and prominent First Amendment cases of this term, if not in recent memory, watched by ethnic organizations, civil rights and liberties groups, legal organizations and other groups and associations that have found themselves fighting for their own identities.

In a statement released by The Slants’ PR firm, Tam, the band’s bassist, founder and the public face of the legal battle against the USPTO, said: “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,” he says.

“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,” Tam says. “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.”

Tam has noted many times that other terms that could be considered racist or, in the words of the dusty piece of legislation used to deny them their trademark, the Lanham Act, “disparaging,” all have been approved as trademarks or registered trademarks, so long as the person or group filing the application were not of Asian American descent. Tam and his bandmates are all Asian American.

He continues: “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 great 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.”

He’s referencing the case of the Washington Redskins of the NFL, whose name has been a target of much legal action and protest for years. Dan Snyder, the team’s owner, has said both that he refuses to change the team’s name despite the opposition and anger of Native American groups, and that he supports Tam and his efforts to fight the Lanham Act. The football team, at one point, tried to convince the Supreme Court to hear its trademark case instead of The Slants; the Supreme Court denied their request but it’s inevitable that the outcome of this case will impact theirs. In the meantime, Tam has repeatedly and vociferously distanced himself, his band and the name from Snyder and his team.

In the meantime, the band has also released a video for their song, described as an “open letter” to the USPTO, called “From The Heart.” Check it out:



Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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