Legal Issues

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
free speech, olympics, rio, tweets

Companies:
usoc, zerorez



Minnesota Carpet Cleaning Business Sues US Olympic Committee Over Its Ridiculous Social Media Rules

from the david-v.-SUPERGOLIATH dept

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) must spend a majority of the four-year break between Olympics thinking up new, spectacularly petty demands to make of everyone when the next event rolls around. It's always been overbearing and thuggish, but it seems determined to top itself with each new iteration of its sports-related boondoggle.

In the run-up to this year's particularly dystopian Olympic games, being hosted in a city without clean water or a clean police force, the USOC has already demanded:

- That a company take down Olympic-related social media posts pertaining to the Olympic athlete the company is sponsoring

- That no non-official commercial entities are allowed to use certain hashtags in tweets

- That no "non-media" companies are allowed to refer to the Olympic games, outcomes of events, or even share/repost content posted by official Olympic media accounts

It's these last two that are being challenged -- not by a megacorporation unable to buy its way into the USOC's good graces, but a Minnesota-located franchise of the Zerorez carpet cleaning business.

A small business in Minnesota is suing over the US Olympic Committee’s ban on tweeting about the Olympic games. The Committee announced last month that non-sponsors are banned from even using hashtags like #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA. Zerorez, a carpet cleaning business in Minnesota, will file suit in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

So why is this seemingly random floor cleaning business in Minnesota the one suing? They simply want to root for the home team.

“They’re very engaged with social media,” Aaron Hall, CEO of the JUX Law firm, told me over the phone. “They felt concerned about being censored on social media, especially at a time when we’re going through a time of pain and negativity.”

The JUX Law firm filed its lawsuit [PDF] Thursday, angling for declaratory judgment that would give it permission to do all the things the USOC seems to feel no businesses should be allowed to do when the Olympics roll around. (h/t to JUX Law for sending me a copy of the filing before it hit PACER.)

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 and Minn. Stat. ch 555 (Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act), Zerorez seeks a declaratory judgment regarding its rights to discuss the Olympics in social media and other online forms of public discourse as follows:

a. The examples of social media posts in paragraph 11 do not violate the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act nor the trademark rights of the USOC;

b. Businesses, including those that are not official Olympic sponsors, are not entirely precluded from engaging in conversation about the Olympics, Olympic results, and Olympic athletes on social media;

c. It is possible for businesses, including those that are not official Olympic sponsors, to mention the Olympics, Olympic results, and Olympic athletes on social media without violating the legal rights of the U.S. Olympic Committee;

d. The U.S. Olympic Committee exaggerated the strength of its legal rights by claiming “commercial entities may not post about the Games on their corporate social media accounts;”

e. The U.S. Olympic Committee exaggerated the strength of its legal rights by claiming businesses categorically cannot use its trademarked words and phrases, such as Olympic, Olympian, and Team USA, on social media and websites;

f. The U.S. Olympic Committee exaggerated the strength of its legal rights by claiming businesses may not wish good luck to Olympic athletes on social media;

g. The mere mention of the Olympics, Olympic results, and Olympic athletes, by a business not sponsoring the Olympics, is not necessarily a violation of rights of the U.S. Olympic Committee;

h. The USOC’s trademark rights in hashtags such as #TeamUSA, #Olympics, and #Rio2016, do not categorically prohibit businesses from using those hashtags to accurately reference these Olympic topics;

i. The USOC has misrepresented and exaggerated the authority granted to it under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act;

j. If the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act were interpreted so broadly as to prohibit all businesses from non-commercial speech regarding the Olympics, the Act would be unconstitutional because it would restrict First Amendment rights;

k. The USOC violated fundamental Constitutional rights as set forth in this Complaint;

l. Speech is not commercial in nature merely because it is on a business’s social media account; and

m. A statement about the Olympics on social media, that does not propose a commercial transaction and reference a specific product or service, is not commercial speech and does not violate the USOC’s rights.

The post contains examples of tweets Zerorez would like to send out, but the USOC's new rules apparently forbid it from doing so and place it in danger of being on the receiving end of a lawsuit, rather than dishing one out.

Congrats to the 11 Minnesotans competing in 10 different sports at the Rio 2016 Olympics! #rioready

Are any Minnesotans heading to #Rio to watch the #Olympics? #RoadToRio

St. Cloud native Alise Post is an #Olympian competing in the #Olympic BMX events today. Follow her at @alisepost11

Good luck to our 11 Minnesota Olympians competing in #RIO2016.

All very innocuous, supportive and non-deceptive. And all the sort of thing the USOC says no one but official sponsors are allowed to do.

I'm not sure this is the sort of declaratory judgment filing Mike was asking for at the end of his post about how the USOC harms Olympic athletes with these stupid social media rules, but it's the only one we have at this point.

There are some interesting First Amendment issues tucked in between the USOC's outsized trademark assertions and the lower protections afforded commercial speech. There's zero chance this will even be viewed by a judge until after the Olympic games are underway and any decision will probably arrive after the games have finished.

But if it does contain enough actionable claims that the court doesn't toss it after the first motion to dismiss, there's a slim chance the USOC won't be able to be quite so overreaching in the future. If nothing else, Zerorez may find itself freed of USOC stupidity. If it does that, many other commercial entities and nonprofits will probably seek similar judgments of their own.


Reader Comments

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  • identicon
    TripMN, 5 Aug 2016 @ 8:57am

    Minnesota Nice

    Typo: The post contains examples of tweets Zerorez would like to send out, but the USCO's new rules apparently forbid it from doing so and place it in danger of being on the receiving end of a lawsuit, rather than dishing one out.

    Also, as a Minnesota native, I'm proud that one of our companies said "to hell with stifling my speech, I want to tweet support for my fellow MInnesotans who are going to the Olympics".

    Now if only it was one of the big dogs who was courageous enough to do this good for everyone in the nation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 9:18am

    *slow clap*

    Does this accept amiccus briefings or something? Could people like the ACLU or even EFF file a lawsuit to free everybody from the ridiculous IOC/USOC overreach?

    Let the games begin!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 9:25am

    It's sad/sick, but

    The USOC will probably have a team of lawyers respond to this who will make more off their one filing than the cleaning company will ever make in its lifetime.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2016 @ 9:29am

    I for one am happy to respect the corruption committees wishes and will continue to not discuss the sporting events in the southern hemisphere.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anon, 5 Aug 2016 @ 9:31am

    Colbert

    Stephen Colbert would like that everyone support one of his sponsored products, iced tea from Musa Corp. in Morocco. Oh, and feel free to use their hashtag, #teamusa ... :D

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DB (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 10:15am

    'No standing' until the case is moot

    The USOC doesn't need to be legally right in order to make effective threats.

    A company risks overwhelming fines, high legal costs and a protracted legal limbo even if they win. Getting a lower-risk, lower-cost declarative judgement isn't possible. They won't have standing until they get a letter from the USOC, and that will be timed so that a judgement won't be made before the issue is moot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2016 @ 5:17am

      Re: 'No standing' until the case is moot

      I think the mootness issue isn't as much of a problem as it would otherwise be, because the Winter Olympics are in 2 years and they presumably will still be wanting to enforce these rules at that time, even if the exact year or city-related terms change.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    michael, 5 Aug 2016 @ 10:26am

    Where is Twitter in all this?

    The real question is why Twitter isn't leading the charge against the USOC on behalf of their users.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ryunosuke (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 10:28am

    and by "overstepped their legal boundaries" you meant pole hurdled, triple jumped, and pole vaulted over it, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2016 @ 10:32am

    I have a somewhat more nuanced view on this. I feel the IOC and USOC are in a very difficult position, trying to prevent all the moneygrubbing hangers-on from milking the Olympics for free advertising, and trying to keep companies from only sponsoring athletes who will provide returns on investments through product placement and mutual shout-outs.

    These are in fact noble goals for the committees, and I appreciate that they are trying to keep the Games "clean" in this regard. Yes, it's unfortunate that these efforts have to include restricting free speech, but the ongoing charade of Olympic athletes not being "professional" is the underlying problem and the real story here, in my opinion.

    Obviously, making absurd demands on the speech of athletes and their sponsors is not the way to go, but I can't come up with anything better. It's a hard problem to solve. Sponsorships are a necessary evil, since few athletes would be unable to train and reach the Olympics without them, nor would completely unsponsored athletes be likely to meet the performance expectations of their governments and fans.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      techno, 5 Aug 2016 @ 11:11am

      Re:

      There is no such thing as "hangers on" when it comes to free speech. Imagine if police said only people who were Black could say anything supportive about Black Live Matter or only Police could support Blue Live Matter. It's stupidly obvious that this is using the law to stifle freedom of speech. Corporations are currently entitled to freedom of speech which means that they can spend money and speak in the ways they so choose. They certainly can't claim to be official. What the USOC and IOC can and should do is ban people who aren't sponsors from being seen or sold within the venue itself. Not on the street surrounding it, not on the internet, not in Kazakhstan. In the event itself. Just because you own an event doesn't mean you own ALL speech surrounding it, at least not in the US.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        techno, 5 Aug 2016 @ 11:14am

        Re: Re:

        No idea why I randomly capitalized Black and Police.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 6 Aug 2016 @ 6:05pm

        Re: Re:

        I'm curious how the USOC would fare in a pure free speech situation -- Absent a contractual relationship, it would be nearly impossible for them to prevail against an individual or even a corporation, since they'd be asking the courts to impose a prior restraint on the first amendment.

        In honor of that: yay #TeamUSA in #Rio2016 !

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 6 Aug 2016 @ 8:21pm

      Re:

      "Yes, it's unfortunate that these efforts have to include restricting free speech"

      It's not unfortunate. It's wrong.

      If the Olympics cannot operate without being given special powers to restrict the rights of nonconsensual others, then the Olympics should not exist.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 12:12pm

    Where There's a Will, There's a Way

    There's zero chance this will even be viewed by a judge until after the Olympic games are underway and any decision will probably arrive after the games have finished.
    If they were serious, they would move for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction. That they are leaving it up to a Rule 57 request for a "speedy hearing" that they know won't get granted until after the Olympics suggests that this is more publicity stunt than anything.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 12:14pm

    All in a Name

    U
    Sue
    Other
    Companies

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2016 @ 12:15pm

    This seems to be an issue that the Great Unwashed Internet could deal with in a matter of course.

    Surely the #rio2016 tag could be flooded by (possibly ersatz) advertisements for sun tan lotion, South American fast food, carpet cleaners, recreational drugs, prostitution, spectator-sport gambling.... And #teamusa could be similarly flooded by everything from ku klux klan on down.

    I don't have to imagine everything. Everyone can play a small part in giving these tags a socially equitable value.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ysth (profile), 5 Aug 2016 @ 1:35pm

    Don't they first need to get a declaratory judgment allowing them to use the terms Olympic, Olympics, Rio, etc. in a lawsuit?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2016 @ 2:37pm

    Why can't we just let the olympics just die.

    It's boring, it's dull, its mostly rigged, millions in bribes are paid.

    This time round THOUSANDS of homeless children were gassed in black vans by the Brazillian government to 'clear' the streets. Dozens of athletes attacked whilst practicing.

    The lake has actual FUCKING HUMAN CORPSES floating in it, along with several hundred tons of human shit.

    Atheletes are being threatened into handing over bribe money to officials just to get basic amenities...

    The cycle road hasn't been fixed. four of the stadiums promised weren't even STARTED on.

    The main stadium is unstable because there are dead workers corpses in the foundations because there was no time to remove them.

    And to top it all off, Brazil has lost over $12billion and will make a gigantic loss out of the whole sorry shitshow.

    Jesus when will this fucking nightmare end?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2016 @ 2:49am

    the SPIRIT of the olympics

    My ass

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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