On July 31st, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a federal rule that had prohibited any trademarks deemed to be “disparaging.” The court’s ruling was 8-0 in favor of throwing out the prohibition.
The court case, which is being heralded by proponents as a strong win for free speech, originally focused on a Portland, Oregon based band called The Slants. The Asian-American band had been denied a trademark on its name on the basis that the government believed their name to be disparaging towards Asian individuals. In order to challenge that ruling, The Slants’ band members argued that the prohibition against their name was a violation of their guaranteed constitutional rights to free speech under the First Amendment. In their ruling, the Supreme Court agreed.
It is not only The Slants who stand to benefit from the court’s ruling. The ruling will likely prove beneficial for the Redskins, a National Football League team who took their name in the 1930s but have been recently under criticism by Native American activists due to the racial associations of the word “redskins.” In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the team’s trademarks, citing that they were disparaging to Native Americans. The team’s dispute against the ruling had been put on hold while The Slants’ case was taking place.
Many individuals had comments to offer based on the ruling. The Redskins’ lawyer, Lisa Blatt, commented to Reuters that the ruling would put an end to the “long-standing dispute with the government” that the team had. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were instrumental in filing the legal papers for The Slants, and they cited the ruling as a true victory for The First Amendment. The ACLU was quick to point out that the government was attempting to protect minorities, but had in fact hurt the Asian-American members of the band.
As for the band, frontman Simon Tam has argued that the name was chosen in order to reclaim slurs often given to Asian people by other races. Moreover, Tam has said that the band wore their name as a “badge of pride” against others’ racial hatred. In a released statement, the band has acknowledge that the ruling has bigger consequences far beyond the band, and they encourage the government to recognize the ability of marginalized communities to determine what’s best for their own lives without government interference.