Portland, Oregon-based Asian-American dance-rock band, The Slants’ oral hearing is set for a full panel hearing at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on October 2nd in Washington, DC.
Comprised of Simon “Young” Tam (bass), Ken Shima (vocals), Joe X. Jiang (guitar), and Tyler Chen (drums), The Slants have tried for years to trademark “The Slants,” but have been rejected twice by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Band founder and leader Simon Tam (whose stage name is Simon Young) formally applied for a trademark in 2010, but a trademark examiner rejected the application, saying that a substantial portion of the Asian-American community would be offended. Tam tried again in 2011, dropping the “reclaiming a stereotype” position and arguing that there is nothing inherently racist about the word “slants.” The same trademark examiner again rejected the application.
On April 20th of this year, a Federal Circuit panel upheld the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s denial of a trademark registration. Following the three-person panel’s decision, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said it was issuing a Sua Sponte order, vacating the panel’s decision to uphold the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s refusal to trademark the band’s name.
Then, on July 16th the Trademark Office filed their response, in which they challenge the constitutional claims made by bassist Simon Tam. Among their arguments, the office acknowledges that while the “slant” has many definitions, the context of “The Slants” gives the likely meaning “is offensive slang usage.”
“The context of the band is our ethnicity,” says Tam. “Which essentially is their continued stance that anyone can register a trademark for THE SLANTS, anyone except Asians that is. If our band was full of people of other any other race, that ‘context’ would be gone. This is racial discrimination.”
In response to the Trademark Office’s filing, Amanda Blackhorse, the plaintiff fighting the Redskins in their court case, not surprisingly filed in support of the Trademark Office. Surprisingly, though, the National Asian American Bar Association (NAPABA) filed an amicus brief in support of the Trademark Office’s position as well, retracting their original commitment to helping The Slants.
In NAPABA’s filing, they cite several inaccurate depictions of events, given to them by the Trademark Office. The brief argues that the Trademark Office does not violate First Amendment rights in denying a registration. They state, “the [Trademark Office] treated Mr. Tam’s application no differently than it would a band comprised of Caucasian members made up to ‘look’ Asian that called itself ‘The Slants…’ This seems to be a reversal for NAPABA, who has hosted Tam as a panelist at their national conference to and has sponsored several events who have featured The Slants and/or Tam.
“It’s shocking,” says Tam, “especially when we’ve been working with NAPABA, its members, and its individual chapters for over five years on this issue. I was told by their amicus committee on multiple occasions that NAPABA members have continually asked the organization to support our case. The response is almost a joke – and obviously, our band can’t ‘make ourselves up’ to look Asian – we can’t change our ethnicity. The hidden truth there of course is that a band with Caucasian members would get the trademark registration for ‘The Slants’ (as long as they weren’t ‘made up’) – that is, of course, systemic racism.”
Additionally, NAPABA’s brief cites a false report used by the Trademark Office as evidence. In 2010, The Trademark Office cited a wiki internet article that claimed a concert for The Slants at the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference (AAYLC) was cancelled due to outrage over the name. However, the band quickly got the steering committee to refute that, filing a legal declaration and sending copies of the event’s programs which proudly displayed the band’s name as a top sponsor, as well as demonstrated that the band performed in subsequent years.
Despite receiving the correction, the Trademark Office continued to report the controversy as true, and included the false article in their 2011, 2012, and 2013 briefs. The reporting of the event became so distorted that during a panel hearing at the Federal Court, they remarked that Tam was “pulled from the podium at a youth program.” In reality, Tam has been a keynote and workshop leader for the AAYLC and remains one of the most popular speaker in the event’s history.
Mat dos Santos, Legal Director, ACLU of Oregon, states, “Here, the federal government is using an out-of-touch law to prohibit speech by The Slants; speech that seeks to take back a term that was historically used to oppress Asian Americans. Ironically, the USPTO is doing so under the guise of protecting Asian Americans from offensive speech. This is clearly a bad outcome for both The Slants and other minority speakers.”
The band has a petition at Change.org regarding the registration and trademark of their name, The Slants: https://www.change.org/p/stop-the-trademark-office-from-denying-rights-based-on-race
The band also recently debuted two music videos off their latest album, The Yellow Album.
The band is hitting the road in support of The Yellow Album this fall and winter. Current tour dates include:
8/15 – Portland, OR – Jade Night Market
9/4-9/7 – Vancouver, WA – Kumoricon
9/26 – Eugene, OR – Black Forest
10/03 – Washington, DC – Federal Circuit Court hearing
10/10 – Yakima, WA – The Hip Shop
10/17 – Colorado Spings, CO – TEDxColoradoSprings
11/4 – Boise, ID – The Record Exchange
11/6-11/8 – Flagstaff, AZ – Kikoricon
11/17 – Portland, OR Portland State University
11/20-11/22 – Wisconson Dells, WI – Daishocon
11/30 – Ashland, OR – Club 66
12/4-12/6 – Pigeon Forge, TN – Yama Con