Thursday, March 18, 2010

WDC Response To Cease-And-Desist Letter

After the letter we received from the Washington, D.C.-based interest group Citizens United was made public, we have heard from a number of attorneys with expertise in trademark law and have reviewed numerous cases including Bosley Medical v. Kremer, TMI v. Maxwell, Taubman v. WebFeats, Lamparello v. Falwell, Utah Lighthouse Ministry v. Foundation for Apologetic Information, and Citizens United v. Citizens United Not Timid.

We are convinced that Citizens United does not have a legitimate claim of trademark infringement against our protest of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that we called "Citizens United Against Citizens United." We use the phrase in a generic, descriptive sense and both our online petition and the campaign's Facebook page clearly state that the protest was organized by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

We did not appropriate Citizens United's logo. The logo we created for the campaign is a play on the Democracy Campaign's logo, not Citizens United's mark. Nor did we seek to trade on the group's name. We are not doing the equivalent of selling "MacDonald's" hamburgers under a yellowish arch or using something resembling the Nike swoosh to sell shoes. We aren't selling anything. No t-shirts, no bumper stickers, no buttons. We are not using this effort to solicit contributions to our cause. We are simply seeking to mobilize public opposition to the Supreme Court's assault on our democracy and mobilize public support for legislative actions to repair some of the damage done by the court's decision in Citizens United.

It is clear we were singled out because we do not share Citizens United's view that the Supreme Court ruling was a great victory for the First Amendment and for free speech. After all, there are a great many groups that should have received the same letter we got a long time ago but have not . . . Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, Citizens United Resisting Euthanasia, Citizens United for Animals, Citizens United for Democracy. The list goes on and on.

It is preposterous to claim, as Citizens United's attorney has, that the name we gave our protest might confuse people and leave the impression that it was organized or approved by the group Citizens United. Nevertheless, it is in our interest to remove any possibility of confusion, however remote, and it is in our interest to make sure our effort is not associated in any way with the unsavory tactics employed by Citizens United or the dubious body of work that group has produced. So we are changing the name of our protest to United Citizens Against Citizens United, effective immediately.

We believe the claim of trademark infringement made by Citizens United was silly and stupid and more than a little ironic. The temptation is great to get all macho about these kinds of things and strike a belligerent pose. But we see nothing to be gained by responding to this sophomoric act with more silliness and stupidity. Surely our federal courts have more important disputes to consider.

In any case, our quarrel is not with Citizens United, it is with the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United. In the end, we had to decide whether we wanted to spend our time in court in a legal squabble with this interest group, or spend it organizing public opposition to the court's decision and working for reform. We choose the latter.

Changing the name of our campaign to United Citizens Against Citizens United does not diminish it in any way. We are still citizens. We are still united in opposition to the outrageous judicial activism of the current court majority, whose behavior was summed up by Justice John Paul Stevens this way: "Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law."

They legislated from the bench, and in so doing gave a great gift to the wealthiest and most powerful interests in our country and dealt a horrible blow to ordinary citizens. We will continue to do everything in our power to see that this ruling does not stand for long.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Making Free Speech Expensive

The public square has always been as much a metaphor as a real place, but in either case it's on the endangered list. Shopping malls pretty much led to the extinction of the traditional town or village square in most American communities. The money-is-speech doctrine is doing the same to the metaphoric version.

Those who wish to control speech in this country don't have to engage in censorship or book burning to achieve their aims. All they have to do is commercialize speech and then make it prohibitively expensive. Turn the proverbial public square into a gated neighborhood with an entry fee so high that most people are priced out. The right to speak is an empty one if entering the public square involves paying a small fortune for air time or otherwise compensating those who get to decide whether yours will be among the voices heard.

I've made this point before - in an Earth Day speech back in 2003 and at Fighting Bob Fest in 2007 and probably a thousand other times - but a letter that arrived by certified mail today put this issue in a whole new light. The letter was from a law firm in Virginia representing the group Citizens United claiming that the Democracy Campaign's protest of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on election financing (that we called "Citizens United Against Citizens United") is a trademark infringement.

I'm having a hard time deciding whether the letter is more remarkable for its stupidity or its irony or the utter audacity of its premise. It claims we've created the impression that our protest was "somehow originated by, affiliated or associated with, connected to and/or approved by Citizens United - which it is not." That's the stupid part. Anyone looking at the online petition or the Facebook page can clearly see that this effort was organized by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and is protesting the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, not the special interest group itself.

The ironic part is that this group described the outcome of the case as a great victory for the First Amendment and free speech, but now seeks to stifle the speech of others who have a different view of the ruling's implications for political speech and the health of our democracy.

The audacious part is the presumption that some private interest can claim ownership of words like "citizens" and "united."

It's apparently not enough for those who wish to control political speech to own the place where public discourse occurs. It seems they also are intent on owning the terms of the debate.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Get The Job Done Or Go Home!"

Doris "Granny D" Haddock was tiny by any measure of physical stature but a giant in civic terms. Her passing at the age of 100 has made international news, I suppose mostly because of the amazing story of her walk across America a decade or so ago. But Granny was so much more than the sum total of that remarkable trek. She was a great many things, foremost among them an unforgettably powerful example of the difference one person can make.

Granny made at least four trips to Wisconsin that I know of after her legendary journey across the country, to give speeches and network and campaign. In between her visits, I would get an occasional e-mail from Doris and an even more occasional phone call, although her faithful assistant Ruth was in much more regular contact. Considering how well Granny D was known and how much in demand she was across the nation and indeed throughout the world, especially after a movie about her life reached an international audience, my mind always reeled at the thought of how many reform advocates like me she must have been keeping in touch with in places scattered across the globe. Her boundless energy in her 10th decade of life was both inspiring and humbling, to say the least.

Most every time I talked to Doris she apologized to me about something, usually her inability to plan too far into the future or commit too far in advance to participate in this event or that. More than once she joked that "at my age, I don't even buy green bananas at the grocery store."

One thing she never apologized for was her contempt for corrupt politicians and the wealthy interests that own them. She could never be accused of failing to speak her mind. She had lived too long to bite her tongue. Her words had a bite to them, though. I'll never forget back in 2006 when she came and spoke at the "public telling" we decided to hold when state lawmakers here were refusing to hold public hearings on proposed reforms. In her signature New Hampshire accent, she said "If you are reformers, get the job done or go home."

Her remarks were ostensibly aimed at Wisconsin legislators, but I couldn't help but take her words to heart too. Granny D lit a fire under people. I felt that flame every time she was near.

The last time I asked Doris to come to Wisconsin was last September. She initially contacted me to say she appreciated the invitation and was excited to make another visit to our state, but called back several weeks later to apologize. She just didn't feel up to making the trip.

It goes without saying that no apology was necessary. We owed her a lot more than she owed us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thank you, Granny

I first met Doris Haddock in February 2003, at a forum on campaign finance reform at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The woman affectionately known as Granny D already was known far and wide by then, having completed her 3,200-mile trek across America to demonstrate her concern for the health of our democracy and dramatize the need for campaign finance reform. I was privileged to be able to see Doris once or twice a year since that first time our paths crossed.

News came this morning of Granny's death at the age of 100. She was . . . no, make that is . . . a true American hero and an endless source of inspiration. I know I join a multitude of admirers in mourning her passing, but also in celebrating a life exceptionally well lived.

I'm glad I met you, Doris.

Friday, March 05, 2010

How To Smear Without Leaving A Smudge

The U.S. Supreme Court's display of judicial activism on steroids in the area of election financing has Americans across the political spectrum united in revulsion. The court's legislating from the bench even is creating nervousness around the water coolers at Fortune Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

Ordinary citizens are right to be outraged. But it's doubtful the fretting by business-sector types will last. Even though the nation's highest court legislated into existence the right of corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, don't expect the likes of Wal-Mart or Microsoft or Goldman Sachs to be sponsoring their own campaign ads any time soon. Most will be too afraid of alienating customers to do that.

That doesn't mean mega-corporations won't be dumping huge sums of money into efforts to sway voters and control election outcomes. In fact, one of Washington's lobbying titans (which also happens to among the 10 largest law firms in America and one of the 20 largest in the world) is already busy advising corporate clients on how to sling mud without actually getting their hands dirty.

Look for trade associations and phony front groups to be even more loaded than they've been up to this point.

Unless major improvements are made to state and federal disclosure laws, corporations will be able to take center stage in elections, imposing their will and turning most candidates into mere bystanders. And they'll be able to do it without much of any fear of a public backlash because their money will be laundered to remove any trace of its true origins and the public will be left without a clue about who is really behind the blizzard of advertisements we all will have to endure.

(Image courtesy of Lisa Larson.)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Our Trip From Bedford Falls To Pottersville

Anyone with a little gray hair who has known Wisconsin for a lifetime can't help but feel that we're being taken on some Clarence Oddbody alternate reality tour. This can't be Wisconsin. Must have gotten some bad liquor.

That feeling swept over me again yesterday when we issued a report showing donations from so-called "payday lenders" to four campaign fundraising committees controlled by legislative leaders. It was hard not to notice both the size and timing of the donations. Three-quarters of the money given to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, for example, was delivered either the day before or a few weeks after Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan announced he no longer thought it was a good idea to limit the interest rates on cash advances and other forms of payday loans. A 36% rate cap goes "too far," the speaker informed us.

This in a state that for years and years had usury laws that limited the interest any financial institution could charge to 18%. In 1996 this law was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor repealing the limit. Not coincidentally, the number of payday lending establishments has skyrocketed, growing from just a handful in 1996 to well over 500 today. Not coincidentally, these outfits now charge interest rates routinely exceeding 500%.

Wisconsin used to have meaningful consumer protections and a vibrant financial sector with countless locally owned lending institutions. Now we have legalized loan sharking and financial institutions mostly controlled by out-of-state interests.

Get us back, Clarence. Get us back.