EDITORIAL: Spies with hurt feelings

The National Security Agency should borrow a sense of humor

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No society can be free unless its citizens are comfortable enough to mock their government. Despots are humorless lugs who prefer to toss court jesters into dungeons until their japes are forgotten. It says a lot that the National Security Agency can’t take a good-natured ribbing. (Who deserves it more?)

The Public Citizen Litigation Group filed a federal lawsuit last week to protect the First Amendment right of Minnesota entrepreneur Dan McCall to sells shirts, hats and coffee mugs emblazoned with slogans making fun of overzealous bureaucracies. One shirt displays the National Security Agency logo with the motto, “Spying On You Since 1952.” Another says “Peeping While You’re Sleeping” above the words “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens.” Coffee mugs with “Department of Homeland Stupidity” are big sellers.

This is no laughing matter for America’s thin-skinned snoops. Mr. McCall has received a fistful of cease-and-desist letters from government lawyers eager to censor the clever smart alecks among us. Mr. McCall is accused of violating the National Security Agency Act of 1959, which prohibits use of “the words ‘National Security Agency,’ the initials, ‘NSA,’ the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words … in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.” Homeland Security says the parody items violate the law making it a crime to “mutilate or alter the seal of any department or agency of the United States.”

Lawyers for the good guys point out the obvious, that novelty items aren’t meant to be taken seriously. No reasonable person would believe that the agencies themselves produce merchandise with such messages, or that they are “approved, endorsed or authorized” by the government. “The agencies’ attempts to forbid Mr. McCall from displaying and selling his merchandise are inconsistent with the First Amendment,” says Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen lawyer handling the case. “It’s bad enough that these agencies have us under constant surveillance; forbidding citizens from criticizing them is beyond the pale.”

The courts have long protected works of parody and satire from claims of trademark and copyright infringement. The government should lighten up. The way to avoid being the butt of humor is to avoid deserving being the butt of humor.

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