Asian-American band wins right to use 'racist' name

Members of The Slants (from far left) Ken Shima, Simon Tam, Yuya Matsuda and Joe X. Jiang.
Members of The Slants (from far left) Ken Shima, Simon Tam, Yuya Matsuda and Joe X. Jiang. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • The United States Supreme Court on Monday allowed an Asian-American band to trademark their name The Slants, a bid which had been rejected because it was deemed a racial slur.

The ruling is expected to benefit other organisations whose monikers have caused controversy, notably the Washington Redskins. The American football team has long faced protests by Native American activists, who see the name as racist.

The Supreme Court decided unanimously that the US Patent and Trademark Office could not refuse the Portland, Oregon-based band the right to trademark the name The Slants, generally seen as a racial slur on Asians, but which the group's founder, Simon Tam, had said was an act of "reappropriation".

He likened the use of the word to African-Americans using the highly charged racist term "nigger" in their music.

"After an excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years, we're beyond humbled and thrilled to have won this case at the Supreme Court," Tam said in a statement.

"This journey has always been much bigger than our band. It's been about the rights of all marginalised communities to determine what's best for themselves," he added.

"We found the Trademark Office justifying the denial of rights to people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation and political views, simply because they disagreed with the message of these groups."

Declaring that "music is the best way we know to drive social change", the four-member group - made up of lead singer Ken Shima, bassist Tam, guitarist Joe X. Jiang and drummer Yuya Matsuda - dedicated their latest EP, The Band Who Must Not Be Named, to the Trademark Office.

"Sorry if we try too hard/To take some power back for ours," Tam sings on opening track From The Heart, a catchy guitar-driven tune.

"The language of oppression/Will lose to education/Until the words can't hurt us again."

The case has drawn intense interest as it focused on the rights of free speech, enshrined by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, at a time of heightened racial tensions in the country.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said the patent office could not refuse to register The Slants' name because it was deemed disparaging.

"We have said time and again that 'the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers'," he wrote, citing previous decisions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a concurring opinion, said the government can regulate speech only in narrow, already established areas such as fraud, defamation and incitement.

"It is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys," he wrote.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Asian-American band wins right to use 'racist' name'. Print Edition | Subscribe