An activist whose advocacy for a message of empowerment helped him win a landmark free speech case at the U.S. Supreme Court—in a unanimous decision—is coming to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to share his story.
Author, musician and speaker Simon Tam will be featured at an event titled “Simon Tam: A Musical Account of a Journey to the Supreme Court,” taking place at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 15, in the UTC Fine Arts Center’s Roland Hayes Concert Hall.
In telling his story, Tam’s multimedia presentation includes both spoken words and music. Guitarist Joe X. Jiang will accompany him on the Hayes Concert Hall stage.
Tam is best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, an all-Asian American dance rock band formed in 2006.
Tam wanted to reclaim a racial slur for the band’s name, saying that embracing and owning a slur as a form of empowerment was the band’s fundamental right. When he requested a trademark for the name, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the claim, citing offensive language.
A long-running legal dispute ensued, lasting seven years and making its way before the U.S. Supreme Court. The unanimous verdict in the landmark 2017 Matal v. Tam free speech case has helped Tam expand civil liberties for marginalized groups (click here for the Matal v. Tam pdf, courtesy of supremecourt.gov).
“Dance rock band front man Simon Tam sought to trademark The Slants. His aim was to reappropriate a term long used to disparage a minority group and to render the term a badge of pride. All of us agreed,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said after the decision was announced.
“Simon Tam is a social activist who was trying to take back a pejorative term, appropriate it in an empowering way and fight for the right to claim an identity that he was proud of,” said Pam Riggs-Gelasco, dean of the UTC College of Arts and Sciences.
“His story is a very uplifting, interesting and compelling narrative about dismantling racial stereotypes, and there is a real inspirational message to his program. Plus, the music is terrific.”
In 2019, Washington University in St. Louis published a study on reclaiming identities based on The Slants’ name and found that reappropriation can be an effective tool for neutralizing disparaging words.
“When a group is seen as taking control of a historically disparaging term, it can indeed neutralize the insulting content of the term,” said James L. Gibson, the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in the Washington University in St. Louis Department of Political Science. “And it does so among the group that is the target of the insult, as well as among members of the majority group. Reappropriation does seem to work in the sense of defusing insults, rendering them less disparaging and harmful.”
Tam is a co‐founder and board chair of The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports arts and activism projects for underrepresented communities. He has served in nonprofit leadership with numerous organizations, including the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, APANO Communities United Fund, The Color of Now, the Oregon Center for Human Rights and the Portland State University Cultural Resource Center.
He has received many accolades for his activism, including The Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, Milestone Case of the Year from Managing IP Magazine, and the Ovation Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2016, Tam joined President Barack Obama, actor George Takei, basketball player Jeremy Lin and other celebrities in the #ActToChange campaign to fight bullying. He has also worked with music icons—including Jay Z, Killer Mike and Chance the Rapper—on legislative efforts to protect artistic expression.
His memoir, “Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court,” was named one of the best books on the Constitution of all time by Book Authority and was recognized with a 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards Silver Award for best autobiography/memoir.
Following the campus presentation, Tam and other band members will perform a benefit concert for Songbirds, with the venue flying in the other musicians. Since 2019, The Slants have mostly been on hiatus from touring to focus on their nonprofit work, but they do get together periodically to perform for special events.
In addition to performing, Tam’s guitar will be added to the Songbirds Guitar and Pop Culture Museum.
The Hayes Concert Hall event is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the UTC Division of Diversity and Engagement. Admission is free, but registration is required. Registration forms will be used for a drawing for free tickets to The Slants reunion performance later that evening at Songbirds and for free copies of Tam’s book.