Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) administration in Louisiana picked an unusual fight recently, taking MoveOn.org to federal court, accusing the progressive activist group of violating trademark rules when it put up billboards criticizing Jindal’s opposition to Medicaid expansion.
So far, that hasn’t turned out well for the Republican governor: a federal judge ruled yesterday afternoon that the Baton Rouge-area billboard is legally permissible. In his original court filings, [Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne] said the national liberal organization improperly mimicked his office’s trade and tourism branding in its satirical billboard posted just outside of the state capital. But U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick disagreed Monday, siding with MoveOn.org in stating the group’s free speech rights trumped the state’s case.
“The State has failed to demonstrate a compelling reason to curtail MoveOn.org’s political speech in favor of protecting of the State’s service mark,” Dick said in her ruling. She added “irreparable injury” would not be caused to Louisiana’s tourism campaign if the ad remained in place.
For those who haven’t been following this dispute, Louisiana is one of several red states that refuse to adopt Medicaid expansion, despite the fact that he policy would bring coverage to nearly a quarter of a million low-income residents. It led MoveOn.org to put up a billboard that reads, “LOU!SIANA Pick your passion! But hope you don’t love your health. Gov. Jindal’s denying Medicaid to 242,000 people.”
The Jindal administration wasn’t pleased – “Louisiana: Pick Your Passion” is the slogan tied to the state’s tourism campaign, and it doesn’t want the phrasing appropriated by a progressive group targeting the governor. MoveOn.org responded that its political speech is intended as satire and is therefore covered by the First Amendment.
Yesterday, a federal court agreed, offering the governor a reminder about what free speech is.
And by all appearances, he needed the refresher.
For me, the thing about this controversy that’s always seemed interesting isn’t trademark law, about which I know very little, but Jindal’s reversal about the importance of championing free speech.
As we’ve discussed before, it was just December when Phil Robertson, one of the stars of a reality-television show called “Duck Dynasty,” made a series of offensive comments during an interview. A&E, the network that airs the reality show, decided to suspend him over his bigoted remarks.
Jindal immediately leapt to Robertson’s defense. For a private business to suspend an employee, the governor said, was an affront to the “First Amendment.” As a constitutional matter, this was gibberish, but the far-right governor dug in anyway, positioning himself as a free-speech absolutist – Americans must be able to communicate whatever message they please, without exception or consequence.
“The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” Jindal said. “This is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views.”
Except it’s MoveOn.org mocking Jindal’s position on Medicaid, at which point it’s a less-free country and there are limits on those expressing their views? When a television network suspends an employee, it’s an outrageous First Amendment violation, but when a state government tries to restrict political speech on a billboard, that’s fine?
The irony, of course, is that the Jindal administration’s lawsuit brought vastly more attention to the billboard than it ever would have received if the governor and his team had ignored it. Jindal’s goal was to have fewer people see MoveOn.org’s message, but he achieved the opposite.
The administration has not yet decided whether to appeal yesterday’s ruling.
By Steve Benen, MSNBC