On Friday, September 20, 2019, the Baltimore office in collaboration with the University of Baltimore School of Law was excited to sponsor an evening with Simon Tam, the front man and founder of the Slants. Following a childhood marked by racial discrimination, Tam founded the Asian-American band to challenge racial stereotypes and named it to defang a derogatory epithet. After the band had been touring for years, Tam applied to register the band’s name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). However, the USPTO denied the application, finding the term “slants” to be a “disparaging” term for people of Asian descent. In response, Tam filed suit, arguing that the USPTO’s decision violated the First Amendment. Ultimately, Tam took his fight to the Supreme Court, where he won in a unanimous decision.
Tam and Slants guitarist Joe Jiang delivered a presentation that was powerful and inspiring. Tam and Jiang interspersed the talk with music, photographs, and storytelling that ranged from funny to shocking to poignant. Tam described the highs and lows of life on the road. In one tale, Tam recounted an encounter at the end of a concert at a prison that had all the makings of a violent confrontation, but instead ended with Tam signing an autograph for a reformed white supremacist’s daughter.
Naturally, much of Tam’s talk focused on the litigation, which made headlines in 2017 in trademark and free speech circles. Tam and Jiang even performed a song that they dedicated to the USPTO. Tam shared interesting additional details about the fight. For instance, in the prosecution of the trademark application, Tam argued in favor of registration on the grounds that the USPTO has registered many marks using the term “slants.” Tam asked why the term was only disparaging for his band. The shocking response was that it was because the band was Asian-American.
In the end, Tam concluded that, though the fight with the USPTO dragged on for years, his faith in the judicial system was well placed. He closed with one of his favorite quotes from one of his unsurprising heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The event was organized by attorneys Barry Herman, Will Hubbard, Nick Hawkins, with help from Christé Spiers.