Accurate Fortune Cookies, Love for RBG, and a U.S. Supreme Court Victory

Sept. 20, 2017

The Slants return to Arizona Law to revisit their highly publicized trademark battle

It turns out the fortune cookie was right.

A few months after oral arguments for his U.S. Supreme Court case, Matal v. Tam, Simon Tam received a promising prediction in a fortune cookie: “A judgment will rule in your favor.”

“For once, I hope this fortune cookie is right,” Tam tweeted in March.

Tam is the front man for the Asian American dance rock band The Slants, who in June won their nearly eight-year battle for the right to trademark their name. Tam and his bandmates visited University of Arizona Law Sept. 12 to speak to students about the case and perform a courtyard concert. The college previously hosted the band in April.

In a discussion moderated by Professor Derek Bambauer, Tam shared how in 2006 The Slants formed to challenge assumptions and stereotypes about Asian Americans. A few years later, Tam filed to trademark the band’s name, thinking it would be an easy and quick trademark process. However, it turned into a lengthy battle after multiple rejections from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which claimed the name was offensive and disparaging to persons of Asian descent.

Tam said, “In their minds, if people saw these faces [of the band members] and they see the words ‘The Slants,’ they are going to automatically assume a racial slur, instead of any other possible definition in the dictionary. That is just a really convoluted way of them saying that anyone can register ‘The Slants,’ as long as they are not Asian.”

The band appealed the trademark rejection in federal court and won, with judges finding that the statute was unconstitutionally vague. Still, six months after their win, they learned the trademark office was rejecting the court’s order because they wanted to appeal to the Supreme Court. In June, the Court ruled in favor of Tam. The 8-0 judgment found the disparagement clause unconstitutional because it allowed viewpoint discrimination.

Tam described how important it was for the band to be in Washington, D.C. during the Supreme Court hearing, and shared special moments that led up to the win, like his favorable fortune cookie and how their Uber driver was listening to their NPR interview while driving them to court. He expressed his love for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who during the hearing expressed support for the band’s position.

Following the victory, Tam said the media used sensationalized headlines and framed the win in favor of the Washington Redskins, who could use it in their own trademark case. Some also claimed the decision would open the flood gates for hate speech.

Despite that, Tam said they were grateful and humbled by everyone who supported them throughout the years leading to their victory.  

“In my mind, the trademark system was a lot like a federal prison, made to keep ideas in, ideas that would disrupt social norms, but really were not protecting anyone,” Tam said. “They were suppressing communities from being able to re-appropriate and express themselves in new ways. Just because you don’t agree with somebody and their approach to social justice, doesn’t mean you should silence them. You should listen, ask questions and not lead with assumptions.”

Tam closed by sharing a story of map copyrights, including how map companies would make up towns in their maps in order to catch other companies who copied the maps by printing those fake towns, until one company discovered that a town they made up decades ago became a real place.

“We should take a key from the world of artists and activists, and begin with the kind of world that you want, imagine what justice looks like, then work on the steps to get there,” Tam said. 

Tam gave a second lecture to undergraduate students, in which he discussed free speech and trademark issues, and concluded his visit at Arizona Law with a concert in the Snell & Wilmer Courtyard.