The Slants win Supreme Court case over offensive trademarks

Victory opens way for other questionable trademark cases, such as the Redskins

The Asian-American rock band The Slants have won a key Supreme Court case, winning in a fight over the right to call themselves by a disparaging name. The case is expected to be applied to other cases that have to do with the First Amendment and its application in other trademark cases. Simon Tam, the band’s frontman, initially filed a lawsuit when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected a petition and an appeal to trademark the band’s name. In the rejection, the office cited the Lanham Act, which prohibited trademarks that “disparage… or bring… into contempt or disrepute” to any person. In the Supreme Court decision, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the clause was in violation of the First Amendment, contending that “trademarks are private, not government speech.”

Tam says that the reasoning behind selecting the name was to reclaim what had been used for decades as a slur against Asian-Americans. “We grew up and the notion of having slanted eyes was always considered a negative thing. Kids would pull their eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture to make fun of us. … I wanted to change it to something that was powerful, something that was considered beautiful or a point of pride instead,” Tam said in January.

The decision was generally applauded by law analysts, especially those who define themselves as advocates of free speech. For example, Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “Fortunately, today’s opinion prevents the kind of absurd outcome that results when the government plays speech police.” Others are interested to see what effects it has on other previously rejected trademarks. For example, in the past the governmental office had rejected trademark claims for “Abort the Republicans” and “Democrats Shouldn’t Breed”. Also, the case is expected to have a positive effect on the situation of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, whose registration was halted in 2014 after the government received complaints from Native American organizations over the offensiveness of the term.

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