HEADLINE Minnesota carpet cleaner challenges U.S. Olympic Committee on free speech

ST. LOUIS PARK -- A Minnesota small business owner who felt "bullied" by the U.S. Olympic Committee is asking a federal court to clarify who can say what about U.S. athletes in Rio de Janeiro.

ST. LOUIS PARK -- A Minnesota small business owner who felt "bullied" by the U.S. Olympic Committee is asking a federal court to clarify who can say what about U.S. athletes in Rio de Janeiro.

Michael Kaplan, co-owner of Zerorez in St. Louis Park, said he decided to file suit after discussing the USOC's trademark guidelines with his attorney. On their face, the guidelines prohibit any business that isn't an official sponsor of the U.S. team from even mentioning the Summer Olympics or the team on their social media platforms. The guidelines don't apply to individuals or news outlets.

"We just felt bullied," Kaplan said. "We don't want to pretend we're Olympic sponsors, but we do want to be part of the conversation. It's everybody's conversation."

The lawsuit was filed Thursday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Zerorez, with 150 employees and thousands of clients, is perhaps the largest carpet cleaner in the Twin Cities, but it's no Fortune 500 company. Kaplan said he "started getting fired up" about the issue and has received a lot of support from other small business owners who've learned of his quest.


"I understand this is above my pay grade," Kaplan said. "I understand this is a legal issue. We're not saying we've been harmed or wronged. We're just asking the court to weigh in and help us understand our rights."

Some sporting related companies have been sued or warned by the USOC, but so far no one has filed suit against the USOC to clarify the free speech issues, said Kaplan's attorney, Aaron Hall of JUX Law Firm in Minneapolis.

Hall said Zerorez is not seeking damages from the USOC, it's seeking declaratory judgment from the court, "a declaration that Zerorez and other businesses can engage in free speech on social media without infringing on the rights of the USOC."

Federal law gives the USOC unique powers to license and control trademark terms beyond those granted to other private entities such as the NFL or Major League Baseball. The U.S. Olympic Committee is not government-funded, so it uses licensing deals to fund Team USA.

"Our problem is that they've gone too far and prohibited all businesses from even mentioning the Olympics on social media," Hall said. "You cannot use the words 'Olympics,' 'olympian,' 'Team USA' or 'RIO2016.' Hashtags are also prohibited. The problem here is that infringes on businesses' free-speech rights."

Zerorez wanted to share posts on Twitter and Facebook encouraging Team USA and Minnesota participants. One such post, according to the lawsuit, might have been: "Congrats to the 11 Minnesotans competing in 10 different sports at the Rio 2016 Olympics! #rioready."

While Kaplan can post that as a private person, his company could not for fear of being sued by the USOC.

"Businesses do not have the right to imply they are sponsors when they are not, but they certainly can talk about the Olympics, in our view," Hall said. "It's a bit unusual having a sports entity suing its fans because they're so excited about the sport."


The Zerorez lawsuit requests a speedy hearing, since the Summer Olympics are underway. It also requests "reasonable attorney's fees, costs and expenses" from the USOC.

The USOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

Related Topics: OLYMPICS
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