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NSA: No Speech Allowed

If you search the Internet for government agencies, you’ll find that FBI stands for “Female Body Inspectors,” CIA stands for “Central Idiot A-holes,” and TSA is part of the “Department of Molestation.” These are all examples of the First Amendment in action. In a free nation, it is essential for citizens to be able to criticize their government.nsa-logo-parody

According to the National Security Agency (NSA), however, the use of the initials “NSA” in this manner is illegal. In 2011, the NSA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), sent a cease and decease letter to Zazzle is a website which makes and sells parody merchandise. Zazzle cooperated and took down the merchandise.

The merchandise in question was T-shirts and mugs making fun of the NSA and the DHS. The T-shirts and mugs utilized the NSA logo and underneath said: “The only part of the government that listens.” The DHS designs had the DHS logos, but replaced the name with “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

The designer of the logos and slogans, Dan McCall, responded by filing a lawsuit against the NSA and the DHS. In his lawsuit, McCall made two claims: 1) The laws that the NSA and the DHS were relying on did not apply to his case and 2) the laws are unconstitutional because they infringe on his right to free speech.

The laws that the NSA and the DHS invoked are actually two different laws. The NSA law forbids the use of the words “National Security Agency,” “NSA,” or the seal of the agency, in connection with merchandise that gives the impression that the NSA endorses, authorizes, or approves of that use. The DHS has as similar law, which forbids the use of any agency seal to fraudulently or wrongfully buy, purchase, transfer, or use another document or paper.

Based on the wording of these laws, the government agencies are really stretching the laws in order to prevent this type of political commentary. No one with a brain would believe that the phrase “the only part of the government that listens” is currently endorsed by the NSA.

Similarly, the law invoked by the DHS is only supposed to be used against “fraudulent or wrongful practices.” A real violation of the DHS law would be like a man sending a letter to a bank asking for his ex-wife’s records and using the DHS seal to fool the bank. In this case, a man is selling merchandise to make fun of the government. There is nothing fraudulent about that.

McCall’s second (and more important) claim is that the laws are unconstitutional. The First Amendment preserves freedom of speech, especially political speech. This is especially important when the speech involves a government agency which frequently collects information on the American people.

Other people on the Internet might claim that McCall’s speech is protected under the First Amendment because the T-shirts and cups are parodies. Although it is true the products are parodies, the parody exception is meant to be protection against violations of copyright law. The government, in defending these laws, would probably not claim that the seals and initials are copyrighted since the seals are suppose to be public symbols.

No, the government would probably claim the purpose of these laws is to protect people from criminals who would abuse government symbols to fool other people. The NSA and DHS would say that the laws don’t violate free speech because there are alternative forms of expression. The laws don’t prevent people from criticizing the government; the laws only stop a particular manner of speech, the use of government logos and names.

There are two problems with this argument. First, logos and names are often the most identifiable parts of government agencies. How do people know that a particular agency is being criticized if the name is not used? McCall needed to have the initials and logos on his T-shirts and mugs in order for him to get his message across.


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