Judge rules for MoveOn.org in state billboard flap

MoveOn.org’s roadside billboard that uses Louisiana’s tourism slogan to criticize Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid can stay right where it is on Interstate 10 in Port Allen, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, who heard arguments last week in Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne’s lawsuit against the pro-Medicaid expansion group, refused to order the national advocacy group to remove the billboard.

Dick, of Baton Rouge, said the state failed to demonstrate a compelling reason to curtail MoveOn’s political speech in favor of protecting the state’s registered trademark. She also said Dardenne “underestimates the intelligence and reasonableness of people viewing the billboard.”

Dardenne, who said he would have to confer with his attorneys before deciding on his next move, reiterated the Lieutenant Governor’s Office has invested heavily — to the tune of more than $69 million — in the state’s “Pick Your Passion” marketing campaign.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed in the ruling,” he said by telephone. “It was incumbent on me as lieutenant governor to protect the brand in which we’ve invested so much.”

MoveOn’s executive director, Anna Galland, hailed the decision as a “victory for common sense, freedom of speech, and the 242,000 Louisianians being denied health care. ...”

“We will not be intimidated or silenced in our campaign to bring health care to Americans who need it,” she said. “We are expanding our billboard campaign in Louisiana.”

An attorney for Dardenne argued in court last week that MoveOn had overstepped constitutional free speech rights, but a lawyer representing the group countered at that hearing that MoveOn’s use of the state’s registered “Pick Your Passion” trademark is an appropriate and legal use of parody.

Dick ruled Monday that, while parody does not provide an absolute cloak of protection against a claim of trademark infringement, it is a strain for the state to argue that viewers of the billboard will be confused into thinking the Lieutenant Governor’s Office is criticizing the governor.

“The question is whether the disconnect between the owner of the (trade)mark and the target of the parody creates viewer confusion. In other words, is a motorist viewing the billboard likely to conclude that the State of Louisiana is criticizing Governor Jindal. The Court thinks not,” the judge wrote in her eight-page decision.

MoveOn’s billboard in West Baton Rouge Parish states: “Louisiana: Pick your passion! But hope you don’t love your health. Gov. Jindal is denying Medicaid to 242,000 people.”

States have the option of expanding government health insurance coverage to residents whose income is up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s about $15,850 for an individual and about $32,500 for a family of four.

The federal government pays 100 percent of the expansion costs the first three years and no less than 90 percent in the years thereafter.

Jindal has said he does not want to build on a broken Medicaid system and that it will be too costly in future years.