A federal judge ruled Monday that MoveOn.org does not have to remove a billboard criticizing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for refusing to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid for 242,000 Louisiana citizens. The judgment doesn’t erase the memory of a US justice system that screwed up an important ruling on the First Amendment.
The decision in favor of MoveOn.org, however, is a symbolic step toward demonstrating respect for what the First Amendment is really about.
Louisiana filed suit against MoveOn.org March 14, stating that the advocacy group violated a state trademark when it used the slogan “Pick your passion” in a billboard on Interstate 10 criticizing the stateʼs refusal to accept Medicaid funding, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“We have invested millions of dollars in identifying the Louisiana: Pick Your Passion brand with all that is good about Louisiana. No group should be allowed to use the brand for its own purposes, especially if it is for partisan political posturing,” said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who is running for governor next year.
“It is very sad to see the state spend taxpayer money on a frivolous lawsuit instead of providing health care to the people of Louisiana,” said MoveOn.org Executive Director Anna Galland in the groupʼs response to the lawsuit.
“Once our lawyers receive and have a chance to fully review the complaint we will have more to say. In the meantime, we strongly urge Gov. Jindal to do the right thing and allow 242,000 Louisianans to access Medicaid,” she said.
“The state has failed to demonstrate a compelling reason to curtail MoveOn.orgʼs political speech in favor of protecting of the stateʼs service mark,” said US District Court Judge Shelly Dick.
“This decision is a victory for common sense, freedom of speech and the 242,000 Louisianians being denied health care because of Gov. Jindal and Louisiana Republicansʼ outrageous refusal to let them access Medicaid,” Galland said in response to Dickʼs ruling.
“While we are pleased with todayʼs outcome,” Galland said, “itʼs a shame that the state filed this baseless lawsuit in the first place – which nearly every lawyer with basic knowledge of the First Amendment said theyʼd lose.”
Kevin Werhan, a constitutional law professor at Tulane University, said lawsuits such as Dardenneʼs are typically unsuccessful.
“The government canʼt legally silence those who are criticizing them (sic),” Werhan said.
Certainly, the precedent is one that should have been a common sense ruling. In fact, itʼs a decision Iʼd even argue is one that Dick should have dismissed without wasting the time and effort of Dardenne and MoveOn.org. We saw with the US Supreme Courtʼs ruling last Wednesday that weakened campaign contribution limits, however, that even seasoned judges donʼt always interpret the Constitution or previous case law correctly.
With that said, Dick decisively shot down the prospect that anyone in Louisiana could be confused by MoveOn.orgʼs use of the stateʼs tourism slogan in its advertisement critical of Jindal.
“In this Court's view, the Lt. Gov. underestimates the intelligence and reasonableness of people viewing the billboard,” Dick wrote in her ruling.
As long as the US continues to operate organizations such as the NSA and judges continue to diminish the meaning of the First Amendment by trying to stretch it to include campaign finance spending under the category of free speech, threats against real freedom of expression by the average citizen will continue to lurk. It will take a number of rulings similar to Dickʼs before anyone can comfortably announce that the First Amendment has won the battle once and for all.