First Amendment

The Department of Homeland Stupidity? Vendor sues for right to sell DHS and NSA parody items


A vendor is asking a federal court to rule that he can sell items parodying the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security without violating the government’s right to control agency names and seals.

The plaintiff, Dan McCall, filed suit in Maryland federal court on Wednesday, report the National Law Journal, TechDirt and Public Citizen’s Consumer Law & Policy Blog. The complaint (PDF) claims a First Amendment right to use the seals.

McCall created and sold T-shirts, mugs, posters and other merchandise using servers at Zazzle.com, which received cease-and-desist letters objecting to McCall’s items in 2011.

Zazzle.com removed two disputed items soon after receiving the 2011 letters and removed a third item in 2013, the suit says. One displayed the NSA’s official seal with the words “spying on you since 1952.” Another used an altered version of the NSA seal with the words “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens.” A third has an altered version of the Department of Homeland Security seal with the words, “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

Asked for comment, the NSA told the National Law Journal it is relying on a statute that says no one can “use the initials ‘NSA,’ the words ‘National Security Agency’ and the NSA Seal without first acquiring written permission from the director of NSA.” McCall’s lawyers say the relevant statutes should be narrowly construed to permit McCall to sell his merchandise, but if the laws are found to bar his use of the seals, the ban violates the First Amendment.

McCall is represented pro bono by Public Citizen and lawyers from Kramon & Graham in Baltimore.

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