UNION COUNTY — The Rutherford Institute has asked a federal court to declare that Union County citizen and political activist Tina Renna should be free to display the county seal in the background of her public access television show, despite the County’s claim that she is infringing on trademark protections associated with the seal. Institute attorneys have requested that the U.S. District Court issue a judgment declaring that Renna’s use of the seal is protected by the First Amendment and that the County’s infringement claims are a baseless attempt to impede her free expression in the pursuit of increased government transparency.
The County sent a letter to Renna in 2010, demanding that she stop displaying the Union County Seal in the background of her public information show “Union County Citizen’s Forum” because it infringed on the County’s trademark rights. The Rutherford Institute’s motion on behalf of Renna argues that trademark laws do not create protections for the insignias of state and local governments and that the First Amendment permits Renna to display the county seal in connection with her news and information reporting.
“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. “For County officials to try and stifle free speech and criticism of their activities with a bogus trademark claim not only violates the First Amendment, but demonstrates exactly why citizens need to shine a light on government activities.”
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 the Township of Cranford’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 September 2010, the Township of Cranford received a letter from the County’s counsel demanding that the Township “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” except for recorded meetings of the County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders. The letter advised that the seal was a pending trademark and demanded proof that television shows had been changed to eliminate use of the seal.
Township officials advised Renna of the letter and Renna removed the spotlighted seal from the background of her show. However, Renna also contacted The Rutherford Institute for advice about her rights, especially in relation to the County’s trademark claim.
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.
The lawsuit contends that 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. Affiliate attorneys Walter M. Luers and Michael F. Daily are assisting in representing Renna.
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