NSA, DHS drop parody complaint

It isn't illegal to print the National Security Agency's (NSA) official seal above the words “Spying On You Since 1952” on a novelty mug, the agency acknowledged on Tuesday. 

The NSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are abandoning their protests against a line of mugs, hats and shirts that mock official government insignia, settling a lawsuit filed by the consumer interest group Public Citizen on behalf of Dan McCall, a Minnesota activist who sold products poking fun at the government.

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“This is an important win,” said Paul Levy, a Public Citizen lawyer involved in the case, in a statement on Tuesday. “Citizens shouldn’t have to worry whether criticizing government agencies will get them in trouble or not. This settlement proves the First Amendment is there to protect citizens’ rights to free speech.”

McCall’s site, LibertyManiacs.com, sold bumper stickers, shirts, hats and other goods featuring a series of parody images. One graphic featured the DHS seal with the words “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

In 2011, the NSA and the DHS sent cease and desist letters to Zazzle, which printed McCall’s designs, claiming that the images violated special legal protections for the agencies' official seals.

After receiving the letters, the company removed McCall's items from its site.

Last October, Public Citizen sued both agencies on McCall’s behalf. They claimed that his hats and bumper stickers were not likely to be confused as official government merchandise and that the First Amendment protected the right to use the seals to criticize the NSA and DHS.

As result of Tuesday's settlement, Public Citizen is dropping its suit. Within a week, the NSA and DHS will send letters to Zazzle and McCall saying that they understand the designs were meant as parody and were not banned under federal law. The NSA also encouraged Zazzle to “reexamine” its content in light of the settlement.

The NSA and DHS agreed to pay $500 for McCall’s legal fees.