Asian-American dance rock band The Slants have won a Supreme Court case against the United States Patent Office in an 8-0 decision, effectively ruling that prohibition against disparaging trademarks violates the First Amendment.
The controversy began in 2011 when Slants bassist Simon Tam sought a trademark for his band’s name — a subversive attempt to reclaim a racist slur used against Asian-Americans. The Patent Office denied his application and shot down an appeal, citing the Lanham Trademark Act, which expressly forbids trademarks that “disparage … or bring … into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.”
Tam later appealed to a federal court and won, prompting the Patent Office to sue him to avoid registering the trademark. The resulting case was argued before the Supreme Court, eventually leading to the unanimous decision in Tam’s favor.
In his opinion for the court, Justice Samuel Alito elaborated, “The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech.”
The case is expected to effect larger instances where trademarks have been denied or revoked, namely the Washington Redskins, who had their trademark registration cancelled in 2014. The team is likely to appeal their trademark cancellation in the coming months.
Aside from their court case, The Slants released a music video for “Let the Right One In” in 2015.