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On The Front Lines

First Amendment Victory: Federal Court Rules in Favor of Rutherford Institute Lawsuit Over Citizen Activist’s Right to Display Union County Seal on TV Show

NEWARK, N.J. — In a resounding victory for the First Amendment, especially as it relates to freedom of the press, a federal court has ruled in favor of a political activist’s right to display a county government seal in the background of her public access television show. Rejecting Union County’s claim that activist Tina Renna was infringing on trademark protections associated with the seal, U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty asserted that Renna’s use of the seal is protected by the First Amendment and that the County’s infringement claims were a baseless attempt to impede her free expression in the pursuit of increased government transparency. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed the lawsuit in 2011 after county officials ordered Renna to stop displaying the Union County Seal in the background of her public information show “Union County Citizen’s Forum” because it allegedly infringed on the County’s trademark rights.

“At its core, the First Amendment is intended to protect the right of Americans to criticize government officials as they see fit,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “In fact, the First Amendment does more than give us a right to criticize our country--it makes it a civic duty. Indeed, duties of citizenship extend beyond the act of voting. Citizens must be willing to stand and fight to protect their freedoms. And if need be, it will entail criticizing the government. This is patriotism in action.”

Tina Renna is a political activist and journalist who has sought to bring more openness and transparency to the actions of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. In December 2009, Renna began producing the television show “Union County Citizen’s Forum” which airs on Union County’s public access Channel 35. The show consists primarily of reading the resolutions and formal acts of the Board and covering other public information of local interest. The show’s background is a graphic consisting of the Union County seal with a spotlight shining on it to symbolize bringing to light the activities and workings of the County government. In 2010, Union County ordered Renna to “cease and desist use of the Seal of the County of Union in any way including, but not limited to, displaying it in the background of all television shows.” Renna was also advised that the seal was a pending trademark and that she was infringing on the County’s trademark rights. Renna subsequently turned to The Rutherford Institute for advice and legal assistance.

In April 2011, Institute attorneys informed Union County officials of Renna’s First Amendment right to display the seal in connection with news programming and requested that the County withdraw its claim to trademark protection in the seal. However, the County refused, even though the federal government had rejected the County’s application to have the seal registered as a trademark. In response, Institute attorneys filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court asking the court to affirm that Renna has a right to display the seal on her television show because the County seal is not subject to trademark protection and that the display of the seal in connection with news and public information programming is a form of constitutionally protected expression which does not constitute trademark infringement. In ruling on the issue, U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty agreed with the Institute’s arguments that trademark laws do not create protections for the insignias of state and local governments and that Renna’s use of the seal for political commentary does not violate trademark law in any event.

Affiliate attorneys Walter M. Luers and Michael F. Daily are assisting in representing Renna.


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