Simon Tam likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous line — paraphrased from transcendentalist Theodore Parker’s earlier statement — that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That said, Tam likes to add that the arc doesn’t bend on its own. It takes courageous individuals willing to stand up for their rights for justice to be achieved.
Tam can now add himself to the list of those who bore the cost of standing up for their rights — and found justice. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled in Matal v. Tam that the First Amendment prohibits the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from denying trademark registration for the name of Tam’s rock band, The Slants, because it allegedly “disparages” Asians.
The PTO didn’t care that Tam, the founder of and bass player for The Slants, is himself of Asian descent — as are all the band members — or that Tam picked the name to celebrate Asian heritage, not disparage it. Because the PTO read on Urban Dictionary that the name is offensive to Asians, and the “disparagement clause” of the 1946 Lanham Act (also known as the Trademark Act) allows the PTO to deny registration to “disparaging” names, the office refused to register The Slants’ trademark and defended that decision all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it lost.
The question before the Court was: Is the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act invalid under the First Amendment? The answer from the Court was a resounding “yes.”
On today’s special “extra” episode of So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, we speak with University of Washington School of Law scholar Ronald Collins and FIRE Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow Zachary Greenberg about the decision. We also feature an April interview we conducted with The Slants about the case at FIRE’s Philadelphia office. To close out the show, The Slants perform two acoustic songs for your listening pleasure.
You can subscribe and listen to So to Speak on iTunes and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud. To watch a video of our interview with The Slants and their musical performance in FIRE’s offices, visit FIRE’s YouTube channel.
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