Rutherford Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against Union County Officials for Censoring Local Activist & Disrupting Local TV ProgramBy County Watchers | May 26, 2011
Nisha N. Whitehead
The Rutherford Institute
P.O. Box 7482
Charlottesville, VA 22906
Cell: (434) 466-6168
NEWARK, N.J.—The Rutherford Institute has filed a free speech lawsuit against Union County, New Jersey, over its efforts to censor a local TV producer who has been calling for greater transparency in government. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, alleges that Union County officials violated the First Amendment rights of community activist Tina Renna when they demanded that she cease displaying the Union County Seal on her public information show “Union County Citizen’s Forum” or face a trademark infringement lawsuit. Institute attorneys argue that the County’s baseless claim of trademark protection and threat of legal action constitute nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to disrupt Renna’s efforts to raise awareness about the activities of local government.
The Institute’s complaint in Renna v. County of Union, New Jersey is available here.
“This case represents a grotesque violation of our First Amendment right to free expression,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Government officials should know better. Such censorship has no place in a free society.”
Tina Renna is a community activist who has been critical of the Union County government and has sought to bring more openness and transparency to the actions of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. In December 2009, Renna began producing the television show “Union County Citizen’s Forum” for airing on the Township of Cranford’s public access Channel 35. The show consists primarily of reading the resolutions and formal acts of the Board as well as other news and public information of local interest.
Displayed in the background during the show was a graphic consisting of the Union County seal with a spotlight shining on it to symbolize the show’s purpose of bringing to light the activities and workings of the County government. In September 2010, the Township of Cranford received a letter from the County’s counsel demanding that the Township “cease and desist use of the Seal of the County of Union in any way including, but not limited to, displaying it in the background of all television shows” except for recorded meetings of the County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders. The letter advised that the seal is a pending trademark, that “you are committing trademark infringement,” and demanded proof that television shows had been changed to eliminate use of the seal. Township officials advised Renna of the letter and Renna removed the spotlighted seal from the background of “Union County Citizen’s Forum.”
However, Renna also contacted The Rutherford Institute for advice about her rights, especially in relation to the County’s trademark claim. In April 2011, Institute attorneys informed Union County officials of Renna’s First Amendment right to display the seal in connection with news programming and requested that the County withdraw its claim to trademark protection in the seal. However, the County refused to disclaim its assertion of trademark protection. In response, Institute attorneys filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court asking the court to affirm that Renna has a right to display the seal on her television show. The lawsuit contends that the County seal is not subject to trademark protection and that the display of the seal in connection with news and public information programming is constitutionally protected expression which does not constitute trademark infringement.