U.S. Olympic Committee Escapes Lawsuit Over Social Media Gagging

Day 13
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Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee and Jonathan Brownlee run the track during the men's triathlon at Fort Copacabana.

Can corporations tweet about the Olympics? Can companies mention results on their Facebook pages? Can they tag an athlete on Instagram

Such questions may one day be explored in court, but not today as a federal judge in Minnesota has just rejected a lawsuit against the United States Olympic Committee.

The day before the 2016 Olympic Games began in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a carpet cleaning company called Zerorez sued the USOC. The lawsuit was launched upon reports the USOC was threatening to sue any non-Team USA commercial entity posting about the Olympic Games on their social media account. Zerorez claimed that but for the USOC's actions, it would exercise its First Amendment rights and requested a declaratory judgment that the USOC was exaggerating its legal rights by claiming that businesses couldn't do such things as wish good luck to the competing Olympic athletes.

There may very well be a strong argument that even if the "Olympics" is protected under trademark law or the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, using the word on social media would be a "nominative fair use," even for a corporation.

But U.S. District Court judge Wilhelmina Wright won't decide this, because Tuesday she ruled that Zerorez' lawsuit fails because the plaintiff can't establish an "actual controversy" under the Declaratory Judgment Act.

The judge writes, "If news reports of USOC's letters to other companies warning that only official sponsors of Team USA are permitted to use USOC's trademarks on their corporate social media channels create an actual controversy between USOC and Zerorez, a company with which USOC never communicated before this lawsuit, then any company that is not an official sponsor of Team USA could bring a declaratory-judgment action against USOC by asserting the same facts. Such a conclusion would eviscerate the actual-controversy requirement."

Here's the full order.