How Asian-American group The Slants fought for their name

Simon Tam decided to name his Asian-American rock dance group The hills, as a “badass reference to our own point of view, or our outlook on life, as well as our journey to unbox these false stereotypes as people of color.”

Then, when another band of the same name started booking concerts, The Slants’ attorney suggested registering their name as a trademark. This would help avoid consumer confusion and also protect The Slants brand name, logo and other brand properties. It seemed simple enough: file papers, pay fees, and voila, The Slants name was protected by law.

Unfortunately, the US Trademark and Patent Office, which deals with cases like this, was not on board. They referred to Article 2 (a) of the Lanham Law, your law of 1946 which is the main trademark law in the country. The USPTO used the denigration provision of the law to claim that the group’s name was insulting to Asian Americans and denied their trademark application.

“Maybe I was a little naive; I thought we could just provide information about the band and their name, and get the brand approved, says Tam, author of the new book. Tilted: How an Asian-American troublemaker attacked the Supreme Court.

“I thought if we just show them community support ‘for the band and its name’ through the Asian-American media, they would give in,” Tam adds.

Well no. Despite the fact, Tam says in the book, that the term bias “on the Richter Racism Scale would barely register a 2.0”; despite the fact that the term was so obscure as a racial insult, the New Oxford American Dictionary had removed from its definition a reference to offense; and despite the fact that, in a poll, only 16% of Asian Americans found the term offensive, the USPTO continued to reject the group’s nominations.

This is why the case ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court. And eight years after the first trademark application, SCOTUS ruled unanimously that the disparaging provision violated the rights of the Group’s First Amendment. As the Notorious RBG put it, “Doesn’t it matter at all that everyone knows that the Slants use the term not to disparage, but just to describe? It takes the sting out of the word.

The victory was sweet. But as he describes in Inclined, it took its toll on Tam and the band. “Maybe the biggest lesson I learned through it all was how long it takes for a change to happen,” Tam says, “and how you have to be very persistent to get there. It took eight years for our case to be resolved. It cost years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars. What is the price to pay for someone who fought for so long? “

Tam also learned some interesting things about the legal system in general and how the USPTO works in particular. He soon realized that the office had no problem authorizing brands for candy labeled “Black Sambo” and “Wampum Indian” and of course had registered the name of a certain Washington, DC football franchise. . But when minority or LGBTQ communities tried to reclaim certain terms, they were almost always turned down – DykeDolls (lesbian dolls), Dykes on Bikes (a lesbian motorcycle group) and Heeb (a Jewish media organization) all saw each other. refuse trademark protection. .

“We are facing a cultural shift around language and politics, and the government was afraid to make the wrong choice, it wanted to avoid political controversy,” Tam said. “The only people involved in the decision had been doing the same thing for years, and they were in uncharted territory. These words weren’t appropriate in the past, and they weren’t going to approve of them now. It shows how imperfect the law was. “

And there’s this – Tam has found opposition in some unexpected neighborhoods. The Asian-American Bar Association actually filed a case against Tam’s case, claiming it could inadvertently perpetuate racist iconography. Tam also caught the attention of Native American activists, who were fighting the Redskin mark, and the media seemed to link Tam’s case to theirs, even though they were not connected – one concerned the cancellation of the ‘one mark, the other obtaining a mark. But in one of those ironies of the story, the Slants’ victory also meant the Redskins could keep their hallmark.

But that was then. Now, says Tam, “the majority of the members of the Asian-American Bar Association are huge fans and supporters, and all of their locals have invited me to do events. I also have good relations with a number of Native Americans; the point is, it’s not like we have different values, we just have different interpretations of the process to get there. (Tam believes the Native American legal strategy was wrong, as it relied on the denigration section of the law he challenged, which was unconstitutional).

“The reappropriation of verbiage used to insult minorities has become a deadly weapon for these same minorities.“

Another thing has changed. When they first started, The Slants booked a lot of anime conventions because they realized this was where they could find a large white audience who weren’t put off by Asian culture. Nowadays they play a lot of legal events like legal conventions, where Tam will often give a presentation on the case and then the band will play. “Most of the time, if they pair me up with a lawyer” during the presentation, Tam chuckled, “I know more than them, because it’s a dark area of ​​the law.”

In a sense, Tam and the Slants are now forever associated with Larry Flynt, whose 1988 First Amendment case, Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell, not only resulted in a unanimous decision in favor of free speech, but was also dramatized in the 1996 film The people against Larry Flynt. Both cases were significant victories for men viewed as cultural outliers by some sectors of society, and both expanded the notion of what constitutes legal discourse (Tam admits that some elements of the cases are “analogous” ).

In Tam’s case, this also means that the reappropriation of verbiage used to insult minorities has become a deadly weapon for those same minorities. “It’s a certain power when we claim identity; you can’t use that against me, ”Tam says. “It’s not only empowering, it feels good to claim something. “You brandish that word, but you have no power over me. “

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About Carman F. Black

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