Rock­ers face court hear­ing over ‘slur’

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

An Asian-Amer­i­can rock band called the Slants tried in 2011 to trade­mark its name, but the US Patent and Trade­mark Of­fice de­clined, cit­ing the moniker’s like­li­hood to dis­par­age many peo­ple of Asian de­scent. The band’s leader, Si­mon Tam, sued on First Amend­ment grounds.

Tam won on ap­peal last year, when the Fed­eral Cir­cuit struck down part of a 1946 law that pro­hibits regis­ter­ing trade­marks that may den­i­grate “per­sons, liv­ing or dead, in­sti­tu­tions, be­liefs, or na­tional sym­bols.” But the US Supreme Court jus­tices agreed on Thurs­day to hear a chal­lenge from the gov­ern­ment early next year.

The (US) gov­ern­ment may not pe­nal­ize pri­vate speech merely be­cause it dis­ap­proves of the mes­sage it con­veys.” Judge Kim­berly Moore, US Court of Ap­peals

The case could carry weighty im­pli­ca­tions for an un­re­lated but more widely pub­li­cized trade­mark mat­ter in­volv­ing the con­tro­ver­sially dubbed Wash­ing­ton Red­skins foot­ball team, and pro­vide clar­ity on broader is­sues if such cases.

When the gov­ern­ment de­nies a re­quest for a trade­mark it deems dis­parag­ing, does that con­sti­tute a penalty on pri­vate speech or a mere re­fusal to sub­si­dize of­fen­sive mes­sag­ing?

Judge Kim­berly Moore, on the one hand, who penned the cir­cuit court’s ma­jor­ity opin­ion to strike down the trade­mark dis­par­age­ment mea­sure, con­sid­ered the de­nial a penalty based on view­point dis­crim­i­na­tion: “It is a bedrock prin­ci­ple un­der­ly­ing the First Amend­ment that the gov­ern­ment may not pe­nal­ize pri­vate speech merely be­cause it dis­ap­proves of the mes­sage it con­veys.”

Judge Alan Lourie, on the other hand, who penned the dis­sent­ing opin­ion, said the rul­ing would “fur­ther the degra­da­tion of civil dis­course” by un­der­cut­ting the gov­ern­ment’s author­ity “to fil­ter out cer­tain un­de­sir­able marks from the fed­eral trade­mark reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem.”

Pres­i­dent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has urged the Supreme Court to over­turn the cir­cuit rul­ing and re­in­state a law that “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 gov­ern­ment ar­gues that the band’s free speech has not been in­fringed since it is law­fully per­mit­ted to use the name with­out trade­mark pro­tec­tion.

In 2014, the trade­mark of­fice moved to can­cel six Red­skins trade­marks reg­is­tered be­tween 1967 and 1990, af­ter five na­tive Amer­i­cans pe­ti­tioned it to do so.

Pub­lic opin­ion among younger Amer­i­cans has shifted to­ward fa­vor­ing re­stric­tions on of­fen­sive speech. A sur­vey by Pew Re­search Cen­ter last year found that 40 per­cent of Mil­len­ni­als fa­vor gov­ern­mentim­posed re­stric­tions on com­men­tary about mi­nor­ity groups, more than older gen­er­a­tions.

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