The Slants: Supreme Court to Rule on Rock Band Trademark Denial

Killer Bees Bonackers Whalers Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

A few weeks ago, the Cleveland Indians baseball team went to Toronto to play against the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League pennant. Some Torontonians pulled out all the stops to try to get Toronto to win. They urged the city to pass a law requiring that the name “Indians” not be publicly displayed. It was disparaging to Native Americans. They also said that the Cleveland mascot, “Chief Wahoo,” whose image appears on the team’s sleeve patches, should be declared illegal. The city complied, but a court threw the law out.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case involving an Asian-American rock group called The Slants. The Slants had applied for a trademark and were denied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—there is a U.S. federal law that says no name that insults “institutions, beliefs or national symbols” can be trademarked, and the office said “The Slants” was disparaging to Asians. But then a Federal Circuit appeals court ruled that that the law is unconstitutional.

The Slants say the name “The Slants” is not disparaging, they say the law is vague, and they say not allowing the trademark violates their First Amendment rights. They also say that their use of “Slants” was intended to do away with any negative connotation of that term. It’s like when the gay community celebrated the word queer, which can sometimes be considered disparaging.

Included in the review of this suit (which is Lee v Tam) is another trademark issue. The Patent and Trademark Office has reversed itself in regards to the Washington Redskins. Earlier they’d allowed the Redskins to trademark the name, but in 2014 they changed their minds and rejected newer trademark renewals.

If the Supreme Court holds for the law cited by the Patent and Trademark Office, it could also mean trouble for the Atlanta Braves.

And it could also mean trouble for one of our local high school basketball teams, the Shelter Island Indians. The term Indians was supposed to refer to natives of India, which Columbus believed he was seeing when he sailed into the New World. He’d never seen an Indian. The people here were the Native Americans. He made a big, big mistake. We’ve paid for it since.

Another high school that could have trouble is East Hampton High School, where the teams are called “Bonackers.”

The term “Bonackers” was the name of a group of 17th century settlers in East Hampton. Their descendants live here today, clamming and fishing as their ancestors did, and they speak English with their own special twang and accent. They declare that East Hampton is “Bonac” because the Indians here—the Native Americans—called this place “Accabonac.”

Maybe the bubonic plague swept through East Hampton once upon a time. Who knows?

I doubt if East Hampton High School has ever applied for a trademark for “Bonackers.” Probably a bad idea, them trying.

The Southampton High School Mariners are probably safe. The Westhampton Beach Hurricanes are probably safe, though it’s hurtful to be reminded of that bad hurricane. The Riverhead High School Blue Waves are probably safe. But the Bridgehampton School nickname is suspect in my opinion. The kids there sport the black-and-yellow jackets of their “Killer Bees” championship basketball team.

Also iffy is Pierson High School, where the teams are called “The Whalers.” The Village of Sag Harbor (where Pierson is situated) was a whaling town in the 18th and 19th centuries that was involved in the decimation of whales around the world. Also suspect is the nickname for Greenport High School. The team originally was nicknamed “The Oystermen” because Greenport was known for its 14 oyster harvesting companies. When most of those companies went out of business nearly half a century ago—today only four remain—the powers that be decided, in the early 1970s, to change the school’s nickname to “Porters.” The Greenport Porters is most certainly disparaging. Most people who hear the name think of someone who carries the luggage. What committee decided on that anyway? Maybe they should change it to “Greenies.”

Well, the World Series is over and football is underway. Any Saturday afternoon this fall, you can go down to the grandstands in one of our towns and watch the competition.

Go BLANK, go.

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