Does a law that says that you can’t trademark an offensive or racist name violate freedom of speech? In this episode of The First Five we talk to Simon Tam, founder of Asian-American dance rock band “The Slants” and lead plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case that dealt with this very question.
When Simon Tam formed the world’s first all-Asian-American dance rock band, he decided to name it “The Slants,” in an effort to reclaim a word that’s been used as a slur against Asians. He probably didn’t expect that one day the Supreme Court would be arguing about the offensiveness of the band’s name.
The controversy centered around the fact that for ten years, The Slants were unable to trademark their name, because of a law that said that you can’t trademark a name that “disparages…persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” The Slants argued that this law restricted the band’s First Amendment right to to free speech; the government argued that the law was a reasonable way for the government to avoid endorsing racist and offensive names. Another group eagerly awaiting the outcome of the case: the Washington Redskins, who lost their trademark because it violated the very same law.
On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court issued its decision, siding with the band and and finding the law to be unconstitutional.
Lata Nott sat down with Tam after his case was argued in front of the Supreme Court, but before the Court issued its decision. They discussed his thoughts on how a law meant to protect minority groups from disparagement can actually end up undermining them, his feelings about the Washington Redskins’ intense interest in his case, and the band’s new song, “From the Heart,” which may be the first song in history to be written as an open letter to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Lata Nott is the executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute.
Simon Tam is the founder of and bass player for The Slants. He’s also an author and activist who speaks on systemic racism and the First Amendment rights of minorities.
This episode contains clips from the Supreme Court oral argument of The Slants’ case, Lee v. Tam. To learn more, you can listen to the entire Lee v. Tam Oral Argument or read the Lee v. Tam Oral Argument Transcript.
To see how it all turned out, read the Supreme Court’s decision.
To read a long list of extremely offensive names that have somehow been granted trademarks, check out the appendix of the amicus brief that the Washington Redskins submitted in support of The Slants.
This episode also contains snippets of two of the band’s songs: “Level Up” and “From the Heart.” To hear the full versions of these songs, you can listen to The Slants’ latest album, The Band Who Must Not Be Named.