The Slants, an Asian-American rock band out of Portland, will have a hearing in front of the Supreme Court on January 18th in an effort to gain the trademark over their band name, bringing a seven-year Freedom of Speech battle closer to conclusion.
“We are pleased that this matter will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States, and look forward to the vindication of the First Amendment rights of Mr. [Simon] Tam and the other members of the Slants,” the Slants’ law firm Archer & Greiner said in a statement.
“We strongly believe that [this case] ‘In re Tam’ raises important legal and public policy-related free speech issues that warrant the Supreme Court’s affirmation.”
The lawsuit stems from Slants founder Simon Tam’s failed attempt to copyright the name “the Slants”: The band’s application was rejected several times because it violated the Lanham Act, which prevents applicants from trademarking disparaging terms; in rejecting the Slants’ application, the trademark office cited UrbanDictionary.com as evidence that the term was derogatory.
The Slants, who viewed their name as a commentary on racial issues in America, argued that the trademark application denial impinged on their freedom of speech rights. In December 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sided with the Slants, ruling that the U.S Patent and Trademark Office and Department of Justice had violated the band’s First Amendment rights.
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Following the Slants’ victory, the appeals court also struck down the “disparagement portion” of the Lanham Act, which was enacted in 1946. Judge Kimberly Moore wrote in her opinion, “Courts have been slow to appreciate the expressive power of trademarks… Words – even a single word – can be powerful. Mr. Simon Tam named his band The Slants to make a statement about racial and cultural issues in this country. With his band name, Mr. Tam conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech.”
However, in April 2016, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case following the Court of Appeals’ decision, resulting in the Slants’ January 18th hearing with the Supreme Court.
The Slants’ case drew additional press earlier this year when the Washington Redskins, the NFL football team that lost the trademark to their name over its derogatory connotations, attempted to piggyback on the Slants’ trademark case. However, while the Redskins’ argument was rejected, the Slants’ case proceeded.
“The [Redskins] tried to hijack our case, arguing that they would be better advocates for the case and wanted to consolidate the two, but the court rejected them,” Tam said in a statement. “So moving forward, it is just about our case. And while the result may certainly affect or influence the Redskins’ case, there’s no guarantee that our victory would guarantee them one as well.”
While the Slants are in Washington, D.C. for the hearings, they’ll also perform some shows in the nation’s capital, as well as hold a protest rally and afternoon concert outside the Supreme Court following their hearing on January 18th. That night, they’ll play D.C.’s Electric Maid.