Using Logos and Laws to Suppress Speech

In an attempt to suppress speech, a bureaucrat tried to convince Watchdog.org that they must remove logos from their articles.

SBA

The good news here is that, eventually, the person writing the intimidating warnings admitted that they were overreacting and withdrew their claims. That was, as interactions with government agencies go, a rather positive outcome.

Watchdog.org has accused the Small Business Administration of running “a bizarre government lending program.” They published an investigative series on the issue, and in the process of doing so, used the SBA’s logo in their articles. I haven’t read these articles, but Bob Allen has posted about their findings—and how the SBA has made some strange loans.

But the fact that the articles were accompanied by the SBA logo started a fun exchange, according to Will Swaim, the Editor and Vice President of Journalism.

“By federal law, the official seal of a federal agency cannot be used in a news publication, online or in print. Neither can our SBA logo be replicated,” June Teasley, the SBA’s communications director in Kansas City, Missouri, said Thursday in an email to Watchdog.org. “Please remove the seal from your website. This happens frequently enough that we usually just email when an infraction is noticed, rather than turning cases over to the Department of Justice. Most offending companies comply.”

Then followed a series of responses that would be funny if it were not so serious. The SBA representative would not back down, insisting that a Federal law designed to prevent someone from fraudulently faking a government website applied to articles by a watchdog organization that were criticizing the government agency.

Finally, when the accusatory email was copied to associates in the SBA, Swain wrote:

Ms. Teasley: I’ve read the code, and what’s interesting is that you seem to understand its intent: to prevent the use of the seal to “represent (a) web page as an official federal site or communication.” That’s not what we’re up to, of course. On the contrary, Watchdog reporters in several states are taking a deep dive into the SBA’s lending practices. What we’ve uncovered is hardly flattering, and therefore unlikely to confuse anyone about the unofficial status of our site.

[…]

Also, I feel as though calling you June – and asking you to call me Will – would lower the temperature here.

Eric? Miguel? I see you’ve been cc’d. Can I get your opinions here?

—Will

To the SBA’s credit, as soon as multiple people were brought into the “discussion” the issues got clarified and the demand to remove the logo was retracted.

The problem is, when a government employee starts making threats, you have no idea if they are acting on their own judgment or executing the decision of the agency. No matter how stupid the accusation, they have the resources to take you to court and make your life miserable, even if you can be sure you will eventually be vindicated. You are always taking a risk when defying such orders.

And who knows if other people have been intimidated into removing government logos because they were afraid to put up a fight?