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.