A novelty T-shirt seller is suing the most powerful spy agency in the world, citing the First Amendment.
Dan McCall, whose parody T-shirts were taken down to comply with a National Security Agency intellectual property claim, filed suit against the agency Tuesday.
For years, McCall sold his goods—T-shirts, posters, bumper stickers—on the product printing site Zazzle, under the company name Liberty Maniacs. In 2011, according to McCall’s lawyer, Paul Levy—Zazzle has refused to discuss legal matters with the Daily Dot—the NSA sent Zazzle a cease-and-desist letter, regarding a baker’s dozen items that used the NSA’s logo in a parody sense. One of those was a Liberty Maniacs product called “NSA Parody Mug.” McCall, who sells thousands of products, didn’t notice at the time.
But when it happened again, in the aftermath of former contractor Edward Snowden leaking earth-shattering agency documents, McCall did take notice. At issue was A T-shirt, bearing the NSA logo, modified to read “peeping while you’re sleeping,” and captioned “NSA: the only part of the government that actually listens.”
The latter is a well-known joke, but Zazzle wasn’t going to risk laughing, and removed the shirt from its site, as it had the mug two years before. It emailed McCall that the shirt “contained content which infringes upon the intellectual property rights of National Security Agency.”
McCall’s suit also named the Department of Homeland Security, which used a similar claim to take down a “Department of Homeland Stupidity” shirt. It seeks to have a court declare that the agencies’ claims of infringement are “unconstitutionally overbroad.”
In a blog post Tuesday, Levy wrote that “it is inconceivable that the First Amendment might not protect these uses of the agencies’ shields.”
In a purely business sense, the takedown may have been a good thing for McCall. Invoking some variation of the Streisand effect, media coverage of the shirt helped spur it to bestseller status once McCall took the same idea and sold it over at CafePress (it was a common sight at Saturday’s anti-NSA rally in Washington, D.C.).
Still, the NSA’s initial intellectual property claim was a violation of the First Amendment, Levy says. Mike Godwin, the attorney who successfully defended the Wikimedia Foundation from the FBI when the agency sued to remove its logo from their Commons, earlier told the Daily Dot that the NSA’s initial claim was “legally nonsensical.”
Reached for comment, the NSA didn’t discuss how it planned to respond to the suit, and merely reiterated its 2011 claim that the mug illegally used the agency’s likeness. It did, however, stress that it hadn’t sent Zazzle any takedown notices since then.
Correction: A previous version of this story claimed McCall’s lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages from the NSA. In fact, it’s seeking no damages at all.
Illustration by Jason Reed