Home » Uncategorized » Do we have a legal right to offensive language? SCOTUS to decide

Do we have a legal right to offensive language? SCOTUS to decide

Caricature of SteveThe United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) is considering whether some disparaging words can be a legal trademark.

At issue is whether Patent and Trade Office (PTO) can deny a request by the Asian-American music group “Slant” to receive a trademark for its name.  A term some Asians find objectionable.

It’s an interesting question that goes beyond branding. It also raises concerns about where do you draw the line between objectionable language and freedom of speech.

In my lifetime I have seen  language evolve to social acceptance of words previously considered offensive and vulgar.


Humans have  an extensive slang or slur vocabulary  for describing ethnic, social and racial groups.

African Americans have been labeled octoroon, quadroon, colored and  blacks. Other more derogatory terms exist and I have even been rejected from registering for some websites because my last name is a racial slur.

Latinos have been called spics, wetbacks and Chicanos.

Native Americans, too, have been the target of offensive descriptions including redskin, buck and squaw.

Homosexuals have endured such stains as faggot, fairy, and queer.

Embracing terms

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, minorities began to take control of their identities and often embraced negative terms as labels of pride.

Some young African Americans rejected the peaceful protests of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and called instead for a more confrontational activism in the Black Power Movement.

Latinos during the same period adopted the previously derogatory term Chicano as their ethnic identity.

Sexual orientation now is commonly discussed by persons who call themselves gays, lesbians, transgender or queer under the umbrella of LGBTQ.

What’s in a name?

For several years I taught the “Class, Race, Media and Gender” course in the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. My students and I discussed how news organizations  framed the so-called “other”—persons different from ourselves. And how individuals choose to empower themselves.

Still, I  confess that I am uncomfortable with some of the contemporary terms that have emerged in recent years. It’s a reflection of the social norms of my generation, race and place.

The music group “Slant” is the latest iteration of previously marginalized groups embracing once derogatory terms in order to take control of and project pride in their uniqueness.

Should “Slant” be granted trademark protection for their name?

Although I and others may not like it, the group has the free speech right to use it.  In that sense I say yes—reluctantly and uncomfortably.

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