Feds Settle Suit Over Parody of Security Agencies
The National Security Agency has dropped its claim that a designer's parody T-shirts, mugs and other merchandise violated the federal law that restricts the use of the agency's name and seal.
The designer, Dan McCall, who filed suit last year against the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, has settled his case. The attorneys involved in the dispute filed the settlement agreement Tuesday in U.S. District Court for Maryland.
Under the agreement, the NSA will inform Zazzle.com, the online store where McCall sold his merchandise, that the agency will withdraw its March 2011 cease-and-desist letter. The letter pointed to the federal law that restricts the use of the agency seal.
The NSA said it would acknowledge, in a follow-up letter to Zazzle, that "McCall's designs were intended as parody and should not have been viewed as conveying the impression that the designs were approved, endorsed, or authorized by NSA."
McCall's products poked fun at security agencies. One design, which featured an altered NSA logo, said: "The NSA: The only part of the government that actually listens."
Represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group, McCall said in his lawsuit that the agency's interpretation of federal law was too broad.
"Citizens shouldn’t have to worry whether criticizing government agencies will get them in trouble or not," a lawyer for McCall, Paul Levy of Public Citizen, said in a written statement. "This settlement proves the First Amendment is there to protect citizens’ rights to free speech."
The Department of Homeland Security also sent Zazzle a cease-and-desist letter in 2011 to complain about McCall's designs. The DHS letter pointed to 18 U.S.C. 506, which makes it a crime to mutilate or alter the seal of any U.S. department or agency.
DHS said in the settlement with McCall that "in retrospect, the letter was overbroad because neither section 506, nor any of the other statutes we cited, applies to the use of the name, initials or seal of agency for purposes of commentary about the agency."
Levy said in an interview it remains an open question whether and in what situations the government can forbid the use of a federal logo in a design. In Washington, Levy noted, souvenir shirts and other items often depict the names and identifying characteristics of federal agencies—including the FBI.