The Portland, Oregon, indie pop dance band The Slants is coming to Tucson, but not to the Rialto Theatre, Club Congress or another concert venue.
The quartet on Thursday is heading to the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, where group founder Simon Tam will recount the band’s eight-year legal battle that is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court over trademarking their name.
“I don’t think anyone can reasonably imagine going to the Supreme Court for naming their band The Slants,” Tam said Tuesday, not long after talking to a UCLA law class about the case.
The high court is expected to decide the case this summer. Oral arguments were presented in January.
The ruling could have ramifications on free speech as well as U.S. trademark laws, said UA law professor Derek Bambauer, who is coordinating the band’s Tucson visit.
The case’s outcome could determine how big a role the government plays in deciding what defines offensive and derogatory language, Bambauer said.
The Slants’ legal journey started after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected their application to trademark their name several times.
The government ruled that the name violated the Lanham Act, which prevents applicants from trademarking disparaging terms. The agency cited as evidence a reference in UrbanDictionary.com, which said the term was used to disparage Asian-Americans.
“Even when we provided them with independent, national surveys that showed that 92 percent of our community supports us, and we sent them over 2,500 pages of evidence including letters from directors of numerous social-justice organizations and concentration camp survivors and every single Asian-American media source in the country, they still went with the Wiki article citation,” said Tam.
He said “slant” is used so rarely as a racial slur that the New Oxford American Dictionary removed any reference to its use as a racial slur.
“I would say (the government’s) premise is outright incorrect,” he said.
In late 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with The Slants and ruled that the government violated the band’s First Amendment rights.
The government appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
“Trademark cases are kind of unusual in the Supreme Court because they are too geeky,” Bambauer said. “But I think this is a First Amendment/free speech case that just happens to come up in trademark law.”
The Slants’ UA visit on Thursday is part of the group’s “The Band That Must Not Be Named Tour” hitting college towns around the country. Bambauer, who teaches intellectual property law and also covers trademark law, said the band approached the university about the visit.
“We are delighted whenever we can get somebody who is a litigant in a case like this,” Bambauer said. “It’s unusual to get the litigants. Most of the times you get the lawyers.”
Tam said he is glad he can shed light on a legal matter winding its way through the highest court in the country.
“This is a chance for students to actually see what’s behind all of that … beyond the legal briefs,” said Tam, whose latest recording, “The Band Who Must Not Be Named” four-song EP, commemorates the Supreme Court fight.
“In some ways, (the case) has brought more attention to our social-justice work and causes we support. In others, it’s been a distraction,” Tam added, noting that every mention they get in the media references their case, not their music.
“The enormous amounts of money, time and energy spent fighting a court case could have been invested into music, touring and production, instead,” he said.