MoveOn.org put up this billboard in Louisiana, using Louisiana’s tourism slogan and other imagery. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — who is also the Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism — has sued MoveOn, claiming that MoveOn is infringing on Louisiana’s trademarks. Louisiana owns the service mark described as,

Louisiana pick your passion logo: “Louisiana” is in purple uppercase Letters, with exclamation points replacing each letter “i.”. “Pick your Passion” is in red, in a modified cursive font, angled upwards from left to right, beneath the word “Louisiana.”

Dardenne is asking the court for an injunction

[p]rohibiting MoveOn.org from using anything other that the mere words contained in the Service Marks, thus prohibiting the use of the font style, the substitution of exclamation points for the letter “I” in the word “Louisiana,” the copy of the photograph of the plate of crawfish taken from the Department’s website, and art work and colors that are taken from the Service Marks.

But MoveOn’s use does not violate trademark law, and is indeed protected by the First Amendment. Trademark law prevents the use of others’ trademarks when that is likely to cause confusion about who is using the trademark; for instance, if I open up a restaurant called “Burger King,” without Burger King’s approval, I will likely be infringing on its trademark, because many consumers will be confused into thinking that this is actually a restaurant owned or franchised by Burger King. Reasonable viewers, however, wouldn’t think that this billboard criticizing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal  is authorized by the state of Louisiana. Courts recognize this, for instance holding that use of trademarks in parodies is generally unlikely to cause confusion; see, for instance, Lyons Partnership v. Giannoulas (5th Cir. 1999), from the federal court with jurisdiction over Louisiana.

More broadly, the First Amendment protects speech — especially outside the context of commercial advertising — even when it quotes or refers to others’ trademarks, so long as it’s not likely to be confusing. This case itself illustrates this will: MoveOn is using the mark to criticize the Louisiana government, and suggesting that the government’s actions are at odds with the welcoming message the same government is conveying using the mark.

The complaint responds by saying that the billboard, “does not constitute parody under the fair-use doctrine because the subject of the parody, Governor Bobby Jindal, is not the author of the Service Marks, as is required,” but that’s far too fine a distinction. To the extent that the parody/criticism defense focuses on the use of an entity’s work to parody/criticize that same entity, that’s amply present here: The ad is criticizing the Louisiana administration, using marks that the same administration is using. (It’s true that Dardenne is an independent constitutional officeholder, but he’s just the plaintiff here; the ad criticizes the state’s highest elected official using imagery owned and used by the state.)

Nor does it matter that the lawsuit only tries to block the use of the slogan’s graphic components, and not the text. Using the mark directly, including the colors, the exclamation points, and the crawfish is itself an important feature of the ad, because it helps convey the message that the Louisiana government is supposedly being hypocritical in praising Louisiana to visitors while at the same time shortchanging Louisiana citizens.

In any event, I expect the case to be promptly thrown out of court; and I hope Dardenne gets some political grief from voters for trying to suppress criticism this way. For more on the story, see this Nola.com article.