Free Speech or to Be Free of Speech?

We should not let the fear of a football team regaining trademark registration justify the suppression of rights for other groups.
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A string of recent events has once again brought debates over free speech back to the forefront. Confederate flags, football mascots, political candidates, and an Asian rock band are in a swirling controversy of overlapping constitutional values.

In one corner, people advocate that all forms of hate speech, including things that aren't actually hateful but could be interpreted as such, should be censored and not protected by the government, no matter what. In the other, free speech advocates argue that the First Amendment is a civil liberty that should be protected at the highest levels, even if it means protecting people with disagreeable views.

However, when political issues cater to the outer edges, the deepest impact is felt by the middle. While people may fall across the spectrum, there's a general consensus that racism shouldn't be tolerated. It's less of a conflict of values and more of a disagreement on the possible solutions.

I have been engaged in a deep fight for the right to register the trademark for my band, The Slants. We're an all Asian American group - but therein lies the problem: The Trademark Office believes that our ethnicity provides the context to turn an ordinarily neutral word, "slant," into a racial slur. It doesn't matter what our intention is and the wide support of Asian Americans across the country is considered irrelevant. So much so, they've dismissed any evidence that disagreed with their decision.

The stubborn pushback from the Trademark Office wasn't that surprising - government offices often have an incentive to maintain the status quo. It just seemed Orwell-esque that while one government body was denying us a right because they thought it would provoke racism, other areas government of government were asking us to do antiracism work on their behalf. We performed and trained city employees on issues of equity, as well as helped with outreach for Federal prisons and the Department of Defense to reduce violence towards Asian Americans.

My case has been winding its way through the court system and it has reached a point where numerous groups, legal experts, and organizations are weighing in on it before the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Recently, three Asian American legal organizations filed in support of the Trademark Office's actions: the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the South American Bar Association of DC (SABA-DC), and Korematsu Center at Seattle University's School of Law.

They argue that removing limits on trademark registration for disparaging terms would encourage greater use of hate speech and implicate the government's approval of those messages. As a matter of fact, they're afraid that if "The Slants" is granted a trademark registration due to the 1st Amendment, it would pave the way for the Washington Redskins to get their registrations reinstated.

Their conviction in this is so strong that they believe it is worth the cost of a marginalized communities losing some of their free speech rights in the process. They even support and restate several of the Trademark Office's false claims in their legal brief. This includes using race as a primary factor to associate the Asian American members of my band with a racial slur.

Yet, if these institutions truly believed that a trademark registration serves as a "federal stamp of approval," then why are they silent on the trademark registrations for white supremacist groups? Why is the focus on one football team's name and not also the plethora of offensive mascots that disparage Native Americans? Why have they not demanded the cancellation of all trademark registrations containing the term "slant?"

We should not let the fear of a football team regaining trademark registration justify the suppression of rights for other groups. The Change the Name campaign is much bigger than a trademark. It is possible to support free speech while opposing hate speech. It is possible to highlight injustices that communities have faced without relying on the cancellation of a trademark to do so. And it is definitely possible to frame questions about free speech around the marginalized groups who need it the most instead of writing laws around one football team, one flag, or one political candidate.

If there is a genuine concern about the government inadvertently supporting or protecting offensive content, then why is the moral line in the sand drawn at trademark registrations? Will these groups want copyright protection stripped from songs, film, and poems that contain potentially offensive content? Do they support the removal of books from publicly funded libraries? These institutions can all bear the "federal stamp of approval," and unlike trademark registrations, are actually funded by public tax dollars.

True equity isn't achieved by sweeping government actions that negatively affect some communities more than others. The restriction of speech hurts marginalized communities. We should not discourage people from using wit, irony, or reappropriation to disarm the malicious. There should be a more culturally competent approach to avoid undermining the work of activists, artists, nonprofit groups, or businesses who use reappropriation to encourage, empower, and to educate.

The debate on free speech has almost always focused on those who abuse it. The cost of free speech sometimes means having disagreeable speech. We can't have free speech and be free of speech we disagree with. But the price that is paid for censorship of it is carried on the backs of the underprivileged.

Please join me by signing this petition and asking for a more culturally competent approach. Marginalized communities should not be victims of bad law, and we certainly shouldn't be denied rights simply because we're afraid others might misuse them. Sign this petition today to demand that we stop undermining the work of activists and justifying racist policies in the name of fear.

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