A Midwestern chain of poke stores named Aloha Poke is under fire this week for threatening legal action against Native Hawaiian small businesses who use the words “Aloha” and “Poke” in combination to sell the traditional rice and fish dishes.
Aloha Poke Company — founded by former owner Zach Friedlander — registered the phrase “aloha poke” as a trademark in January 2016. Now, Aloha Poke Company’s attorneys have sent numerous cease and desist letters to other poke shops named “Aloha Poke” — many of them owned by Native Hawaiian small business owners — demanding that they change their name and branding. Unfortunately, many of those small businesses can’t afford to fight the large chain store in court for the right to use their own language, and have been forced to undergo the costly process of rebranding.
Earlier this year, I profiled the Oregon-based Asian American rock band, “The Slants“, whose fight to trademark their name had gone all the way to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. According to their website, The Slants has been making music together since their 2007 debut album “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts“.
Recently, however, The Slants have found themselves embroiled in a legal battle with the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO), which denied them registration for the trademark of their band name on the grounds that it is derogatory towards Asian Americans. The 1946 Lanham Act prohibits registered trademarks from “consisting of or comprising of immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
It is on this basis that opponents of the Washington Redskins and other racist sports mascots have demanded that the NFL #ChangeTheName. And indeed, when the federal government allows an entity to register a racist, sexist, or otherwise derogatory trademark, they in so doing condone the language by granting it institutional recognition and legal protection.
But, should all uses of all historically derogatory slurs simply become — in essence — blacklisted — prohibited regardless of context?