Supreme Court Takes on Case of Portland Band 'The Slants' | NBC Southern California
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Supreme Court Takes on Case of Portland Band 'The Slants'

The Supreme Court could decide if offensive names have the right to be trademarked

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    This file photo shows the Asian-American band The Slants, from left, Joe X Jiang, Ken Shima, Tyler Chen, Simon Tam and Joe X Jiang. The Supreme Court announced Thursday it will hear the band's case to trademark its controversial name.

    Asian American boy band "The Slants" is headed to the nation's highest court and the fate of the Washington Redskins' name could hang in the balance, too.  

    The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear the case involving The Slants' controversial name choice in the question of whether the group should be allowed to trademark it. The case could have implications for the Washington Redskins’ trademark status by setting a precedent on the matter of free speech in trademarks, according to The New York Times.

    In 2011, band founder Simon Tam filed for a protected trademark for The Slants with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) but the office denied it. The band is still allowed to use the name, but without the trademark they are not able to prevent others from using the same name, according to the Los Angeles Times.

    The band saw a major victory last year when a federal appeals court backed the band, calling the PTO’s rejection of an offensive trademark a violation of the right to free speech. The Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

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    In February the appeals court categorized the band’s name as “private speech” and called the rejection of the trademark a result of the government’s own disapproval of the message. The First Amendment can protect even hurtful speech. Lawyers for Tam have said that the PTO has been inconsistent on when it deemed names “offensive,” citing the 1980s hip-hop group N.W.A. as an example. That group was allowed to trademark their name. 

    In response to the appeals court, the Justice Department said that a trademark is in fact a government benefit, not private speech, and therefore could be seen as an endorsement. In a dissent on The Slants’ name, the Justice Department argued that granting a trademark “would convey that the United States regards racial slurs as appropriate,” Los Angeles Times reported. 

    The Slants, originally from Portland, Oregon, was formed in 2006. The self-proclaimed “Chinatown dance rock” group has released four albums under an independent label.

    The Supreme Court has so far declined to hear the Washington Redskins case. The team has had a history of controversy over its name. In 2014, the PTO canceled the team’s six trademarks, including the team’s logo, following the years-long complaints from Native American groups. The team name has been called offensive, as the term “redskin” is a derogatory term for Native Americans. President Obama has called on numerous occasions for the D.C. team to change its name, citing a need to “break stereotypes.”

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    Tam, for his part, has called the Redskins a racial slur against Native Americans. He has said that the difference lies in the fact that The Slants does not intend to offend anyone and is not an inherent racial slur.

    The court is not expected to rule on the issue for several months.

    The Slants has not returned NBC’s request for comment.