Although the 2016 Summer Olympics have come to an end, the U.S. Olympic Committee is still facing a lawsuit accusing it of “exaggerating” the strength of its legal rights to the detriment of advertisers.
Prior to the Olympics, the USOC cautioned businesses to avoid “social media posts that are Olympic themed, that feature Olympic trademarks, that contain Games imagery or congratulate Olympic performance unless you are an official sponsor.” It sent a warning letter to non-sponsor companies cautioning them against using the Olympics’ trademarks, even in hashtags (such as #Rio2016 and #TeamUSA).
One company decided to fight back.
A small carpet cleaning business in Minnesota, Zerorez communicates with customers on Facebook and Twitter on a variety of topics including holidays, cleaning tips and pets. With the Olympics on the horizon, the company anticipated discussing the event, contemplating social media posts such as: “Congrats to the 11 Minnesotans competing in 10 different sports at the Rio 2016 Olympics! #rioready” and “Are any Minnesotans heading to #Rio to watch the #Olympics? #RoadToRio.”
But when faced with the USOC’s Olympic and Paralympic Brand Usage Guidelines—which cautioned advertisers about the Committee’s marks in any form of advertising and stated that any use of the trademarks on a non-official sponsor site would be viewed as commercial in nature and consequently prohibited—Zerorez said it elected not to engage.
“But for the USOC’s Actions, Policies, and threats, Zerorez would exercise its First Amendment rights by discussing the Olympics on social media,” according to the company’s Minnesota federal court complaint, arguing that the Committee violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. “The USOC’s Actions, Policies, and threats have had the effect of chilling, silencing, and censoring Zerorez’s speech about the Olympics on social media.”
Zerorez requested declaratory relief from the court in the form of an order that 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” and that the “mere mention of the Olympics, Olympic results, and Olympic athletes, by a business not sponsoring the Olympics is not necessarily a violation of the rights of the U.S. Olympic Committee.”
To read the complaint in HSK LLC v. United States Olympic Committee, click here.
Why it matters: The Olympics are over but the plaintiff’s complaint argued that the action remains relevant for subsequent Olympic events, such as the Winter Olympics and the Paralympics. Plaintiff requested that the court recognize that the “USOC violated fundamental Constitution rights” and that “[s]peech is not commercial in nature merely because it is on a business’s social media account.”