WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the trademark case of The Slants, a Portland-based Asian-American rock band that was denied a trademark for its band name for years on the ground that it disparaged Asians.
The band won a major victory last year when a divided federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. ruled the law prohibiting offensive trademarks violates free-speech rights.
Writing for a nine-judge majority, Judge Kimberly Moore said the First Amendment protects "even hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities." She said a federal law barring offensive trademarks is unconstitutional.
"Whatever our personal feelings about the mark at issue here, or other disparaging marks, the First Amendment forbids government regulators to deny registration because they find the speech likely to offend others," Moore said.
Slants founder Simon Tam, who formed the band in Portland in 2006, has long argued that the band chose the name as a statement of racial and cultural pride.
"This band was created specifically to celebrate Asian-American culture and kind of share that perspective — our slant on life, if you will," Tam said.
"It feels kind of unreal," he said. "Not only that we won ... but that because of our band, we in some way have expanded First Amendment rights for millions of Americans."
In April, The United States Patent and Trademark Office petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court's ruling.
The patent and trademark office said speech is not being restricted because the band is still free to use the name even without trademark protection. They argued that the law "simply reflects Congress' judgment that the federal government should not affirmatively promote the use of racial slurs and other disparaging terms by granting the benefits of registration."
The firm representing the band, Archer & Greiner, released a statement about the court's decision: "We are pleased that this matter will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States, and look forward to the vindication of the First Amendment rights of Mr. Tam and the other members of The Slants. We strongly believe that (our case) raises important legal and public policy related free speech issues that warrant the Supreme Court's affirmation."
On Monday, the court turned away a long-shot appeal from the Washington Redskins challenging the same law. The Redskins had made an unusual request of the court to hear their case even before a federal appeals court had weighed in.
The Redskins are appealing the government's decision to cancel its trademarks over concerns the name disparages American Indians.
The court's decision to hear The Slants' case, but reject the Redskins' case, is a victory in itself, said Tam (whose stage name is Simon Young). Tam has argued that the two cases should not be grouped together.
"The [Redskins] tried to hijack our case, arguing that they would be better advocates for the case and wanted to consolidate the two, but the court rejected them," Tam said in a release. "So moving forward, it is just about our case. And while the result may certainly affect or influence the Redskins' case, there's no guarantee that our victory would guarantee them one as well."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.