A designer from small-town Minnesota is suing the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security for objecting to his satirical renderings of their logos.
This past summer, 38-year-old Dan McCall featured parody agency logos on an online marketplace called Zazzle. "NSA: The only part of government that actually listens," one logo read.
It was meant to be funny, light-hearted. But then the Zazzle site informed McCall that his merchandise violated its guidelines by possibly infringing on intellectual property rights and had to be taken down.
With the help of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, McCall finally learned that the NSA and DHS had each warned Zazzle in 2011 not to allow the use of their seals on any merchandise it sells. That included McCall's designs.
"Here we have a First Amendment problem [the NSA and DHS] have created by heavy-handed actions in response to criticism," Paul Alan Levy, a Public Citizen attorney, said. "We don't know what other threats these agencies have sent out in response to parodies. … These agencies need to be brought in line to respect these people's free speech rights."
The lawsuit Public Citizen and McCall filed Tuesday seeks "to establish the legality of the parodies that McCaul created" so that independent third-parties like Zazzle aren't intimidated for doing business with McCall, Levy said. McCall isn't seeking compensation. Instead, he wants a judge rule that his satirical Images are protected under the First Amendment.
McCall, who lives in Sauk Rapids, Minn. — population 13,000 — with his wife and three sons, studied economics and political science in college. But while applying to law schools, something clicked: He’d much rather create art for a living. For the past 10 years, he’s been a designer who earns a living delving into both traditional design work and satirical Images.
"I'm just a little guy that happens to be in a little business up here, and I feel like they're just going around and threatening," McCall told the Washington Examiner. “I want to basically clear the way for the others so we know where we stand when we're telling jokes or creating parodies.”
Since the issue with Zazzle this past summer, McCall moved his controversial designs over to CafePress, a competitor. They remain up.
Neither the DHS nor NSA responded to requests for comment.