Concert, Presentation by the Slants to Close IUP Free Speech Project Year of Free Speech Programming

Posted on 4/23/2019 10:38:55 AM

Members of the Slants—Simon “Young” Tam and Joe X. Jiang—will be in concert and will offer a presentation at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on May 3 as the final event in the university’s Year of Free Speech programming.

The concert will take place at 2:30 p.m. in the Humanities and Social Sciences building lobby; it will be followed by a presentation at 4:30 p.m. in the HSS building, room 126, about the group’s story of how efforts to trademark its name resulted in a Supreme Court case. Refreshments will be served at the 4:30 p.m. program. Both programs are free and open to the community.

“We thought this would an interesting and fun way to wrap up IUP’s Year of Free Speech,” Gwen Torges, a faculty member in the Political Science Department and a member of the Free Speech Project committee, said. “I think people don’t realize how much of daily life is touched by the First Amendment and its protection of the freedom of speech.”

Torges had the opportunity to hear Tam speak about his Supreme Court experience last October, when she and three IUP students traveled to Pittsburgh to attend the National Conference on the First Amendment, which was sponsored by Duquesne University and the Pittsburgh Foundation in cooperation with the National Constitution Center.

“I found his talk really interesting and relatable,” said Torges, “but it got even better when he and two members of his band started playing. Everyone loved it, and I knew then that I had to at least try to get the Slants to come to IUP.”

Tam describes the Slants’ origin story:

“. . . (After watching Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill,) . . . I realized that despite having over 17 million Asian Americans in the US, our communities had almost no representation in the Billboard charts, major music magazines, or rock clubs. . . . So I wanted to shake things up. I had the idea, but I lacked two very important things: a name and a band of Asian American musicians.

“I started telling friends about the idea and how I wanted to turn some of the preconceptions about Asians upside-down (especially growing up with a life of being bullied). I asked, “What is something that you think all Asians have in common?” Immediately, they said “slanted eyes.” Interesting, I thought . . . especially since that stereotype is false. But the term stuck with me and suddenly, the name of the band was there: the Slants.

The Slants “As the Slants, we could share our perspective, or slant, on life as Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs). We could also expose the misconception—and, for those of us who experienced shame as a result for having the physical trait, we could turn it into a point of pride instead.”

When Tam decided to file a registration for the band’s trademark, the Trademark Office accused the band name of being disparaging, or racist, toward Asians, Tam says.

“To them, combining an all-Asian band with the word ‘slant’ would make people automatically associate us with the outdated, obscure racial slur and not any other possible definition. In other words, anyone could trademark ‘slant,’ as long as they weren’t Asian.”

Tam and his band members continued to promote Asian American culture, and performed for the Department of Defense, federal prisons, and for international diplomats from Asia. The band also got invited by the White House to help President Obama on an anti-bullying campaign.

The case moved through the courts and, in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Slants should be a registered trademark.

Tam wrote the following after the decision:

“After an excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years, we’re beyond humbled and thrilled to have won this case at the Supreme Court. This journey has always been much bigger than our band: it’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves.

“During the fight, we found the Trademark Office justifying the denial of rights to people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, and political views, simply because they disagreed with the message of these groups. To that end, they knowingly used false and misleading information, supported by questionable sources such as UrbanDictionary.com, while placing undue burdens on vulnerable communities and small business owners by forcing them into a lengthy, expensive, and biased appeals process. The Supreme Court has vindicated First Amendment rights not only for the Slants, but all Americans who are fighting against paternal government policies that ultimately lead to viewpoint discrimination.”

In 2018, the group started a nonprofit organization, the Slants Foundation, to provide scholarships and mentorship to aspiring artists and activists of color. Tam comments that the journey has been “ingrained into our work. We’ve merged arts and activism, rock n’ roll and geeky anime culture, and touring as a band as well as touring as speakers, into the very fabric of this band.”

“We’ve been fortunate to be able to bring nationally known speakers, and now the Slants, to IUP as part of the Year of Free Speech to help raise awareness about the First Amendment and the ways it protects the freedom of speech,” Free Speech Project committee chairperson David Chambers, chair of the Political Science Department, said.

“Awareness of the US Constitution is essential to the mission of the university and essential for citizens of our democracy,” he said. “My generation takes how important the First Amendment is for granted because we witnessed first-hand how the First Amendment was essential to the civil rights movement in the ’60s.”

“Talking about the Constitution is one of my favorite things,” said Torges, who teaches classes on constitutional law, “and so I’m grateful to have had to support of President Driscoll and Provost Moerland to enable us to promote awareness about the First Amendment in a big and impactful way.

“It’s also been a great opportunity to work on a year-long project with our students,” said Torges. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

Students helped with all aspects of planning the events, with making the video, and with staffing Speech Space, a pop-up event in which students went into the campus community to videotape student responses to questions related to the freedom of speech.

Year of Free Speech programming has included a student-organized roundtable discussion, “Can They Really Say That? Surviving Free Speech on a College Campus;” presentations by Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and president and CEO of the National Constitution Center; a program with Greg Lukianoff, author of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Intentions Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure; a public reading of the Constitution and a conversation with the founding fathers; a program on censorship and comic books; and a discussion with a representative of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union on “Why Defend the Speech We Hate.”

More information about the Free Speech project is available on Twitter @IUPwordsmatter or on Instagram @IUPFreeSpeech.