Minnesota company suing the Olympics over free speech

- What began as a passionate conversation between business owner and attorney over the rights of free speech is now a civil lawsuit in federal court against the Olympics.

“It’s crazy! We absolutely didn’t expect to be involved in litigation involving the Olympics,” said Michael Kaplan, the owner of Zerorez, a carpet cleaning franchise based in St. Louis Park.  “But it just didn’t sit right that we couldn’t be part of a conversation about a global, social sporting event.”

What Kaplan is referring to is what’s happened in the past two weeks: businesses getting cease and desist letters from the US Olympic Committee demanding they delete social media posts and reminding them of the strict rules regarding the USOC trademarks.

The Olympics has trademarked words, phrases and hashtags.  The words “Olympics” and “Olympian” are included in that list, which means if you’re not an individual, a media outlet or an official sponsor, you can’t use them.  In fact, if you’re a business, the USOC doesn’t want you posting about the games at all, considering even simple conversations on social media to be marketing. 

The guidelines on the USOC website declare that those posts “are commercial in nature, serving to promote the company or brand; to raise the brand’s profile and public opinion about the company or organization; and/or to increase sales, membership or donations.”

“What the OC is going too far with is saying you can’t congratulate a local Olympian,” says attorney Aaron Hall of Jux Law in Minneapolis. “You can’t even mention the Olympics.”

On Thursday, Hall filed a federal civil lawsuit on behalf of Zerorez, asking the court for what’s called a “declaratory judgement.”  In other words, they want the court to clarify if what the Olympics demands hold up under the laws of free speech.

“It’s one thing to say you can’t imply you’re associated with the Olympics, we all agree with that,” Hall told us. “But to say you can’t congratulate a hometown hero who wins something or to wish them well, that’s going to far, that’s an infringement on our freedom of speech.”

That’s why Zerorez’s Kaplan decided to jump in.  His company has not posted about the games, but is worried what this kind of limitations may lead to.

“Again the concern is can we not down the road talk about how the Wild just won a game? Can we not give a high five to a Twins pitcher who throws a shutout?  It’s a slippery slope but the concern is that’s where it ends up going.”

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