Imagine that you find that ideal name that suits your business and brand quite perfectly. You rush to quickly file all of the appropriate paperwork with the US Patent and Trademark Office so that you can start to use your trademark. Then your attorney reaches out to you to inform you that you’ve received a rejection letter from the USPTO stating that your trademark was not approved because it was found to be “disparaging.” What would you do?
Well this is exactly what occurred to the Asian-American rock band, The Slants. The band’s trademark was rejected in 2010 on the grounds that it is disparaging to people of Asian descent. The band leader, Mr. Tam, was surprised about the rejection notice and cited that the band had received not one formal complaint by any Asian-American. At that time the band had been touring for over several years.
In an edited excerpt from the conversation that the NY Times conducted with Mr. Tam, he says the following about where the name originally came from:
It came from me asking around friends when I was trying to think of a band name. I said, “What’s something you think all Asians have in common?” and they told me slanted eyes. That’s interesting because, No. 1, it’s not true — not all Asians have slanted eyes and Asians aren’t the only people that have a slant to our eyes. But No. 2, it worked [as a name] because we could talk about our perspective — our slant on life, as people of color navigating the entertainment industry — and at the same time, pay homage to the Asian-American activists who had been using the term in a reappropriated, self-empowering way for about 30 years. We know that irony and wit can neutralize racial slurs, because it shifts the dynamics of power. It makes people check in and think, “Is this actually appropriate to use or not?” Prior to that, people just make assumptions. Read more here.
The Slants, not wanting to give up on their band name, took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. And after 5 years of battle, the Supreme Court recently ruled the USPTO is not able to determine what kind of speech is socially acceptable and what is not. Good news for the Slants and every other person who wants to register a disparaging, vile, offensive word or device. Bad news for those of us who feel assaulted by the denigration of our cultural fabric.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.” The court went on to say that “the federal government does not dream up these marks,” and that registration should be “viewpoint neutral.”
Attorney Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union agreed with the decision that the Supreme Court made and said:
“The government’s misguided effort to protect minorities from disparagement instead hurt members of that very community by hindering their right to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Fortunately, today’s opinion prevents the kind of absurd outcome that results when the government plays speech police.”
As this moment, the government has appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. So, we will need to continue to follow this case. What do you think of the Supreme Court’s decision? Feel free to comment below.