James Gill: Lawsuit a big gift to MoveOn.org

Erecting a billboard alongside the interstate in Baton Rouge will draw a lot of attention to your cause, but for maximum statewide impact, you can’t beat getting sued in federal court by some prissy state panjandrum.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne has sure played into the hands of MoveOn.org, a public benefit corporation out of California that objects to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.

Dardenne wants the court to make MoveOn.org stop using a parody of the logo used to promote tourism in Louisiana. He claims to have spent $69,427,429 on the marketing campaign built around the “Service Marks” that MoveOn.org adapted for its billboard assault on Jindal. MoveOn.org’s version so closely resembles the original that the public might think it came from his office, Dardenne alleges.

The public ought to regard that proposition as a slur on its intelligence.

Whatever the legal merits of the suit — and First Amendment experts say it doesn’t have much of a prayer — it is a clear loser PR-wise.

MoveOn.org is evidently delighted that Dardenne took umbrage and sent a “cease and desist” letter when the billboard went up. Not only did MoveOn.org tell Dardenne to take a hike, but it started running a TV commercial incorporating a picture of the billboard and posted it online. Meanwhile, Dardenne’s suit has attracted widespread media attention.

So it will continue as the litigation proceeds. By the time it is all over, pretty much everyone in Louisiana will have gotten MoveOn.org’s message that the poor could get health care if only Jindal had a heart.

The theme of the marketing campaign that brought out Dardenne’s protective instincts is “Louisiana: Pick Your Passion.” His lawsuit describes the design in loving detail thus: “Louisiana is in purple uppercase letters, with exclamation points replacing each letter I. ‘Pick Your Passion’ is in red in a modified cursive font, angled upwards from left to right, beneath the word ‘Louisiana.’ ”

That is certainly an eye-catching color scheme, as MoveOn.org promptly recognized. It also borrowed the timeworn adman’s trick of substituting ! for I throughout and did not scruple to use what the lawsuit calls “an exact copy in image of a plate of crawfish taken from the official website” of Dardenne’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

The phrasing is odd, but you get the picture.

The similarity is confined to color and style, for MoveOn.org’s billboard could hardly be confused with an advertising campaign lauding the myriad delights Louisiana offers the tourist. “Louisiana: Pick your Passion,” MoveOn.org proclaims, “But hope you don’t love your health. Gov. Jindal’s denying Medicaid to 242,000 people.”

Nevertheless, according to the lawsuit, “the colorable imitation of the Service Mark” is “likely to cause confusion or mistake” and lead “the reader to believe the message is a promotion by the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.” This is madness. No passing driver could conceivably think an attack on the governor’s health care policies is the lieutenant governor’s way of luring tourists. The public is smart enough to spot a parody.

Aha, says the lawsuit, a parody is a “work that imitates the characteristic style of an author” to make points at his expense. Because the target here is Jindal and the “Service Marks” are Dardenne’s creation, the billboard is not worthy of First Amendment protection because it does not “constitute parody under the fair use doctrine.”

But if aping the style of one division of the executive branch to attack the policies of another is not parody, what are we to call it? In any case, neither Dardenne nor Jindal owns the advertising campaign. The taxpayer does, and he is unlikely to have any patience with semantic quibbles.

Indeed, the taxpayer will be at a loss to understand how the MoveOn.org billboard could possibly “tarnish and dilute the Service Marks” and “cause irreparable harm to the Office of the Lieutenant Governor,” when the possibility of confusing such widely divergent messages is zero.

In fact, the MoveOn.org billboard probably helped Dardenne’s campaign. You may not have heard of “Pick your Passion” before, but everyone has now.

So everyone is better off. Well, everyone but those 242,000 without health insurance. You’d need more than a billboard to make Jindal abandon his hard-line stance. You know why. I don’t need to draw you an exact copy in image.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.