In a ruling issued May 26, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided unanimously with the pro-life Radiance Foundation in its trademark infringement fight with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The court ruled a parody of the NAACP written by Radiance co-founder Ryan Bomberger did not violate trademark laws or confuse people about the NAACP’s mission.
“The critical message conveyed by the satirical mark itself and in the commentary that follows ensures that no confusion about the source of the commentary will last, if in fact it is generated at all,” the judges wrote.
Like Radiance, many people and organizations use satire to criticize organizations, the ruling noted. Some have parodied the National Rifle Association as the “National Republican Association” or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as the “Anti-Christian Lawyers Union.”
In January 2013, Bomberger, who is black, wrote a column published by LifeNews.com calling the NAACP the “National Association for the Abortion of Colored People.” Though the NAACP doesn’t hold an official position on abortion, Bomberger used the parody to highlight the organization’s support for pro-abortion groups.
The same month, the NAACP sent a letter to Bomberger and LifeNews demanding they remove the parody in seven days. Bomberger, represented by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), filed for declaratory judgment, and the NAACP filed a trademark infringement counter suit.
“The Radiance Foundation merely expressed its opinion of the NAACP’s abortion activism in an article,” said ADF-affiliated attorney Charles M. Allen. “The NAACP cannot use trademark law to shield itself from criticism by denying others the right to use its name when they are expressing their opinions.”
Last year, District Court Judge Raymond Jackson sided with the NAACP, ruling Bomberger’s parody created confusion about the organization’s name. He ruled Radiance “may not present such critiques in a manner that is likely to confuse the public regarding whether certain trademarks espousing a pro-abortion viewpoint are authorized or sponsored by the NAACP.”
But that ruling violated First Amendment rights, according to ADF senior counsel Steven H. Aden. After Bomberger and LifeNews posted the article, people complained to the NAACP about its abortion stance, but no one expressed confusion, according to a brief filed with the 4th Circuit.
“The First Amendment protects the freedom of all organizations, regardless of their political or religious views, to comment on the views of others,” Aden said. “The 4th Circuit was right to reverse the district court’s flawed decision which discriminated against free speech.”
Bomberger said the 4th Circuit ruling upheld “what the NAACP claims to protect: our most basic civil rights.” In his controversial column, Bomberger argued the NAACP fights for social justice while ignoring the injustice against unborn, black babies.
“They’ll beat the drums of economic, social, and environmental ‘justice’ while over 360,000 black babies, annually, never get a chance at one of the few constitutional rights that actually exist – the right to life,” he wrote.
Even the ACLU of Virginia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sided with Radiance against the NAACP. The two organizations filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Radiance. The brief cited First Amendment rights, trademark laws, and past precedent to defend Radiance’s parody.
“I never would have thought that I, as a biracial (black/white) adult, would be the target of such inequality,” Bomberger wrote in a March Townhall column. “When the ACLU sides with us over the NAACP, acknowledging the abuse of trademark law to silence speech, you know just a little bit of hell has frozen over.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Courtney Crandell writes for WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine at worldmag.com based in Asheville, N.C. Used by permission.)