It’s been a big summer for Simon Tam, musician and founder of the Slants, now
trademarked, reappropriated, and unanimously affirmed by the Supreme Court.
He also got married recently in his native state of California, so there’s been
much to celebrate.
And yet it seems there still some who aren’t cheering his nearly eight-year-long
battle to trademark his band’s name and use the disparaging term “slant.”
People of color remain divided since the Slants’ victory is certain to allow for
the Washington NFL team to continue using its disparaging name.
Tam told Emil Amok’s Takeout, he’s aware of that and
it bothers him.
“It makes my skin crawl, it’s terrible,” Tam said. But he ultimately feels the
decision was a win for all, protecting vulnerable communities who have had no
say in the trademark process until this case. “Our identities were used against
us,” said Tam, who feels it will now be up to the marketplace and our own
communities to say what’s inappropriate, rather than the government.
“The cure to hate speech is not censorship,” said Tam, who believes that the
First Amendment allows for a deeper and more nuanced approach than simply to say
some words are good, and others are bad.
In recent reports, some Asian American legal groups like NAPABA and AAAJ have
criticized the Supreme Court decision. (AALDEF and other Asian American groups
joined the ACLU amicus brief and
supported the Slants.) But Tam has held steady and rejects the “slippery slope”
notion of critics who believe that an avalanche of hate speech will result from
the decision. In an open letter to his critics,
Tam sees the decision as advancing legit reappropriation.
“In fact, now communities can be equipped to protect their own rights and
prevent villainous characters from profiting and misleading people with these
same terms,” Tam wrote.
In his open letter, Tam cited the case of Heeb, a Jewish publication on pop
culture, granted the registration for their magazine, but when they applied for
the exact same mark in the categories of t-shirts and events, were denied for
As Tam points out, it meant when a group of Holocaust deniers sent harassing
communications to subscribers, inviting them to Heeb Events, the organization
was unable to stop them. “Had Heeb not been wrongly denied a registration, they
would have been able to get a cease and desist order. This case now allows a
just procedure against other people wrongly profiting from racial slurs or
countering the work done by reappropriation.”
Tam concludes: “Laws, like words, are not always inherently harmful. It depends
on how they are used. It is like a sharp blade: in the hands of an enemy, it can
inflict pain and suffering. However, in the hands of a surgeon, it can provide
healing. The law I fought against was a large sword used by the government to
haphazardly target “disparaging” language, but the collateral damage was on the
free speech rights of those who need protected expression the most. Like other
broad policies around access and rights (be it stop and frisk or voter ID laws),
there was a disparate impact on the marginalized.”
That logic may still not satisfy those conflicted by the decision, especially
when it leads to a result like affirming the use of the Washington NFL team’s
But the bottom line is still the First Amendment, which Tam is busy expressing
in the studio on the follow-up to the group’s last EP, “The Band Who Must Not Be
The new disc will definitely be named, eponymously, the group’s first ever under
its proud SCOTUS affirmed banner. For Tam, in the name of the broader Asian
American community, it was worth it.
Listen to the Slants here.
Listen to Simon Tam on Emil Amok’s Takeout.