Another group with a controversial name is ecstatic over the Supreme Court’s recent decision on an Asian-American rock band’s case.
Dykes On Bikes, a nonprofit lesbian motorcycle organization that has had trademark troubles of its own, is celebrating after band The Slants won its case on Monday. The Patent and Trademark Office had previously struck down the band’s request to trademark its name, citing a policy that had prohibited the trademarking of “disparaging” names.
But the Asian-American group explained that its name was actually meant to be empowering for Asians.
“Kids would pull their eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture to make fun of us,” frontman Simon Tam told NPR in January. “I wanted to change it to something that was powerful, something that was considered beautiful or a point of pride instead.”
In Matal v. Tam, the court overturned the anti-disparagement clause, saying the measure violated the First Amendment. And Dykes On Bikes, whose trademark obstacles mirror The Slants’, couldn’t be happier.
“As with any transformative news you receive in life, it felt like a growing tide of emotion,” Kate Brown, president of the organization’s San Francisco chapter, told HuffPost. “There were a thousand thoughts going through my mind, but mostly ‘This really happened! It’s finally over! We’ve finally, finally, reached the end of this and it went in our favor!’”
Brown told HuffPost that the organization’s name was intended to turn an epithet into a source of pride. But, similar to The Slants’ case, the PTO initially refused to approve the name and claimed it was “derogatory” to lesbians, Dykes on Bikes’ lead attorney Brooke Oliver told HuffPost. Though the office rejected its application, the group appealed through the courts and eventually won in the federal circuit courts. Its name was officially registered in 2007.
The trademark battle wasn’t over, however. The group faced more challenges years later when it attempted to register its logo. The PTO rejected its request, arguing once again that it was derogatory to lesbians. The office suspended the application until The Slants’ fate was decided. So, the motorcycle club filed an amicus brief to support the Asian-American band in its fight.
Now, the group can finally rest easy.
“It was crazy to put us through that twice. It shows how arbitrary the standard was,” Oliver said, reflecting on the cases. “It left this decision about what’s derogatory up to individual government officials and that’s the essence of viewpoint discrimination.”
While Dykes on Bikes has a lot to celebrate, Brown admits that the Supreme Court decision is a double-edged sword. The Washington Redskins will ultimately benefit from the case since the anti-disparagement policy, which was used by activists to argue against the football team’s name, was struck down.
But Brown says that the Redskins’ situation is different from theirs and in its amicus brief, the motorcycle group made it clear that it does not endorse the football team’s use of the Native American slur. Brown added that though the Redskins, who are not a Native American group, may have the legal right to use the name, it doesn’t mean it should.
“Both the Dykes on Bikes and The Slants have reclaimed self-referential terms in efforts to trademark our names on behalf of the groups to which we respectively belong. The Washington Redskins is not a group reclaiming generally understood insulting language on its own terms,” Brown said. “We agree that while the First Amendment protects people from abuse of power by government, we as a society have a responsibility to make good decisions under that protection.”
Moreover, Oliver said that the decision actually has the power to help marginalized groups and nonprofits, since these organizations will be able to trademark traditionally offensive names and “take the sting out of them,” while also keeping others from commercially exploiting the monikers.
The motorcycle club says it now sees an end to its own trademark battle. Following The Slants’ case, the group filed a request with the PTO to expedite its logo registration. Though it hasn’t received a response yet, Oliver said she’s feeling optimistic this time around. They no longer have a legal impediment to keep them from moving the logo forward.
“Nobody can take the strength and courage of claiming, for ourselves, our own name away from us,” Brown said. “We chose the name Dykes on Bikes because it truly is who we are.”