I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: Could a SCOTUS case involving an Asian rock band affect banned license plates in GA, SC?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

Simon Tam, seen here in front of the US Supreme Court, was part of a landmark case involving trademarks because of his band "The Slants". (Source: Simon Tam)

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) – A little-known US Supreme Court case over trademark law and First Amendment rights could open the door for changes when it comes to vanity plates.

In Georgia and South Carolina, there exists a list of banned combos of letters and numbers that could be considered as offensive to many people.

[RELATED: How do you get a vanity plate in Georgia?]

[RELATED: How do you get a vanity plate in South Carolina?]

Naturally, we got our hands on the list from both states. Some of the items on this list are not surprising as to why they were banned. Others, though, had us scratching our heads.

[RELATED: Read a list of banned license plates in Georgia.(WARNING: Many of these words are extremely offensive. Do not read if you're under the age of 18.)

[RELATED: Read a list of banned license plates in South Carolina.(WARNING: Many of these words are extremely offensive. Do not read if you're under the age of 18.)

Not only were we scratching our heads or laughing, but a few people we showed the list to also shared those sentiments.

“I’m afraid to speak these out loud,” one person said.

“This is hysterical,” said another.

“You had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get this?” one asked. (That’s true, actually. We filed two requests.)

“Who decides what’s offensive and what’s not?” another person asked.

We had the same question, and on our way to get answers, we saw one definite head-scratcher: DOGPIG. It could mean two animals – or a vile insult in German.

We took both lists to David Hudson, an Augusta attorney whose practice involves First Amendment issues.

“A lot of them, I don’t even know what they mean,” Hudson said. “Here’s one. Acid. A-C-I-D. Like the drug, acid?”

Acid is banned in both states, but here’s on that isn’t: Slants.

The Slants is the name of an Asian band known for more than just their music these days.

“The United State Trademark Office said that was offensive,” Hudson said, “and they couldn’t have the name Slants.”

We tracked down the founder of the Slants, Simon Tam, to ask him about his band name.

[RELATED: See music by "The Slants"]

“Because of these eyes, because of this face,” Tam said. “I always associated that with shame.”

Tam was on the road, so we spoke via Skype one night before he took the stage in Texas.

“I'm the only person in US history to be denied that registration because they said it was inappropriate for an Asian band to use it,” Tam said. “That was the main reason why we were denied."

So he fought for it, and his case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

[RELATED: Listen to the entire argument in front of the US Supreme Court.]

"By voting unanimously on it in an area like that, it just showed how much the court believed in protecting the freedom of expression,” Tam said.

For him and his band, it also meant something else. They got to redefine the word -- slant.

“Why not change it? Why not make it associated with pride and self-empowerment instead of shame?" Tam asked.

Which brings us back to license plates, and an important question: The Slants own their name, but who owns a plate? Drivers or the state?

Hudson says the government has discretion because a license plate is a state-mandated means of identification.

"The Slants case opened a new way of looking at what can be used as a public identification of your business or a singing group, or what you might put on a license tag, or in an advertisement on the side of the road or a side of a bus,” Hudson said.

But we still aren’t sure if a lot of these are safe for television.

“Ask Richard Rogers,” Hudson joked. “He’ll know.”

So, we did.

“Well, thanks a lot, David,” our Richard Rogers said. “He wants to know what’s bad. BAD is on the list. The word bad is banned. Which is odd to me. ICE? ICE is a no-no. Apparently. I didn’t realize that. And opium. We say it on the news all the time. But you can’t put it on a license plate.

Apparently, you can put all these on a plate, though. Someone in an office in Atlanta or Columbia decided you wouldn’t be offended by these.

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