The intention, according to band leader Simon Tam, was to convey a positive spin on the word “slant” (a familiar slur against people of Asian descent) especially since all the members of the Portland, Ore.-based band, “The Slants,” are Asian American. “We can talk about our perspective, our slant on life if you will, and what it’s like to be people of color navigating through society in the entertainment industry while being able to pay homage to Asian American activists,” said Tam.
But in 2015, the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied the rock band a trademark registration because a bureaucrat said the name was “disparaging,” citing Section 2(a) of the trademark act that lets the government deny trademark protection to a mark that is “immoral,” “scandalous,” or “disparaging.”
On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous 8-0 decision that this use of Section 2(a) is unconstitutional. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion. “We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”
“It’s a win for all marginalized groups,” Tam told the New York Times. “It can’t be a win for free speech if some people benefit and others don’t. The First Amendment protects speech even that we disagree with.”
The court’s decision rightly remands the question of how to respond to speech we might find offensive back to the court of public opinion. The Slants are free to call themselves by any name they please — and make money at the same time. But music lovers are free to decide if the names will enter into their decision on whether to attend a concert.
Parents might not want their kids repeating what they see on an album cover and on store shelves.
If enough fans object, the band may reconsider its stance — no trademark is worth protecting if people stop buying albums and concert tickets.
But the freedom of speech must be protected.
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”