on monday, the u.s. supreme court overturned long-established trademark practice with its opinion in matal v. tam. the court held that a federal trademark statute prohibiting registration of potentially disparaging trademarks actually violates the first amendment’s free speech clause.
the case was initiated by a frontman for “the slants”—a portland, oregon rock band—after the united states patent and trademark office (uspto) refused to register the slants’ trademark application on the basis that it was racially disparaging.
interestingly, the slants’ members are of chinese descent and embraced the controversial name, in part, with the intent to reframe it through their success. “the notion of having slanted eyes was always considered a negative thing,” the slants' frontman simon tam says. “Kids would pull their eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture to make fun of us . . . i wanted to change it to something that was powerful, something that was considered beautiful or a point of pride instead.”
the ruling could have wide-ranging effects on former and current trademark disputes—like the washington redskins' mark that was canceled by the uspto as offensive to some native americans. it also opens the federal trademark registration door to an entirely new category of controversial brands and marks.