Today, the Supreme Court will listen as Simon Tam, an Asian-American, Oregon-based rock musician and his fellow bandmates argue that they deserve the right to trademark their band's name: The Slants.
In 2011, Tam submitted an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in an attempt to officially trademark The Slants— a business move as much as it was a doubling-down on the idea of re-appropriating and reclaiming the slur historically used against Asian people. His request was rejected on the basis of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which says that the government cannot clear trademarks thought to "disparage… persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
Though Tam appealed the decision to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the board ended up siding with the PTO—despite the fact that it understood the social message Tam and his bandmates were attempting to convey with their band name. The issue at hand, the TTAB reasoned, was that for all of the good that The Slants felt they were doing with their name, there was no way to prove that other Asian-Americans wouldn't still be offended by the term.
From there, the TTAB's decision was upheld by a panel for U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and then subsequently reversed by the full Federal Circuit. The Slants have now taken their case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case last fall.
"Slurs have been used to stereotype groups, to label its members as inferior, and to express contempt in a universal shorthand," Tam's legal brief filed in December reads. "But for just as long, some of the people in these very groups have decided that the explosive power of these charged words does not have to be monopolized by those who seek to demean."
While the Lee v. Tam will ultimately decide whether Tam and his bandmates will have legal ownership of their brand, the case could have larger implications for the Washington Redskins, the NFL team currently in the process of arguing that they have the right to keep their trademark for a similarly offensive term for Native Americans. While the full Federal Circuit conceded that The Slants were acting with "good intentions" with their band name, the Redskins have run into similar issues with the Lanham Act.
Last July, an Alexandria District Court judge ruled in favor of the cancelation of the Redskins' trademark because of the term "redskin" being a historically offensive term used in reference to Native American people. A 2016 Washington Post poll found, however, that nine in 10 Native Americans do not find the team name offensive.
The Redskins are currently waiting on a ruling from the Court of Appeals, but Lee v. Tam could ultimately serve to strengthen their claim to their trademark. Speaking to The Washington Post, Tam admitted that he thought of himself and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder as unlikely allies in their trademark fights, despite their obviously coming from different perspectives.
“It’s pretty evident that Native Americans on the whole find the football team name’s extremely offensive and disparaging,” Tam said. “Snyder needs to realize the effect of what he’s doing on the community.”