Saturday, March 11, 2017

Grossmont College grad takes case to the U.S. Supreme Court

It’s a long way from Grossmont College to the United States Supreme Court, but that’s where Simon Tam has found himself. 

Simon Tam at the U.S. Supreme Court
The former Grossmont College student and his Asian-American rock group, The Slants, are challenging a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision denying the band’s trademark of its name based on a 1946 law barring the federal registration of labels or brands it considers “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.” The Slants performs up to 150 shows annually across North America, Europe and Asia, and describes its work as part art and part activism, often infusing performances with discussions about social justice and inequality. 

“The Slants is about re-appropriating a term and using it to talk about our slant on life, our perspective on what it’s like to be Asian-American in this country,” said the musician and serial entrepreneur who enrolled at Grossmont College’s audio engineering program after graduating from Monte Vista High School in 1999. 

The Portland, Ore.-based Slants have been fighting the government in court since after the group’s attorney suggested the successful band apply to trademark its name. That was in 2009. The following year they learned the Patent and Trademark Office had turned them down. 

“We were told we couldn’t trademark the name because it disparaged people of Asian descent,” Tam said. “We decided to appeal.” A circuit court agreed with The Slants, saying the Patent and Trademark Office’s decision violated the band’s First Amendment rights. The government appealed, and oral arguments were presented before the Supreme Court in January. A decision is expected in June. 

“Every single step of this process has been enormously expensive,” Tam said. “If it hadn’t been for the gracious and generous pro bono work done by a number of attorneys and other experts who believe in our cause, our expenses would have reached well into $1 million. As it is, we have spent tens of thousands of dollars from our own pockets.” 

Tam’s journey began in San Diego, growing up in North Park and Clairemont before moving with his family to Spring Valley. An advanced student, Tam opted to enroll at Grossmont College after graduating from Monte Vista. 

Simon Tam performing
“It’s a much better value than going straight to a four-year college or university,” he said. “But mostly I went there because of the small class sizes and working with professors with real-world experience. And the techniques I learned in the audio engineering program have, in many ways, profoundly impacted what we’re doing today with our music. 

“Not only did Grossmont College help prepare me for my future career, it also offered specialized technical courses that weren’t offered at any four-year university,” Tam continued. “Getting into classes that I needed for my transfer wasn’t a struggle. The instructors were passionate and always had time to assist every student.” 

After leaving Grossmont College, Tam earned his bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Phoenix and his MBA from Marylhurst University, just outside Portland. Although he is a driving force behind The Slants, he also works as marketing director for the Oregon Environmental Council, and is an author and a speaker who has developed equity and inclusion trainings for several public agencies and corporations. In addition, Tam is an adjunct professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Portland Community College and Marylhurst University.  

For the past several years, The Slants has been front and center. He is listed as the founder and executive director of The Slants LLC, and the group advertises itself as the world’s first and only all Asian-American dance rock band, refers to its sound as Chinatown Dance Rock, and often appears at anime conventions around the world. As the group’s marketing guru, Tam has created strategic partnerships with Red Bull, Fender Guitars, Gibson Guitars and more. 

After nearly a decade in a legal battle against the United States government, Tam says that despite the cost, the effort has been worth it. 

“Hopefully, this will bring more attention to the social justice issues that we are trying to promote.”