Edgy T-shirts bring legal controversy

The students behind a controversial T-shirt that was sold on campus last week to raise money for hurricane victims have come under legal fire for using the U’s and BYU’s names without permission.

Shane Hinckley, licensing administrator for the U, said that although the group was working for a good cause, it violated trademark laws by using the school names without permission and is legally required to either print over the BYU reference or destroy the T-shirts.

He said that if the group had asked permission to use the U’s name, he would have declined because the T-shirts, which state “BYU Sucks but Hurricanes Blow,” would send a bad message.

“We have a good relationship with BYU. We allow each other to use the other’s name for merchandise that promotes the rivalry, but not in a way that is derogatory or offensive,” he said.

Hinckley, who must personally approve all uses of the U’s name or logo for commercial gain, said that BYU is also unhappy about the T-shirts’ message.

The T-shirts were being sold to raise money for the New Orleans and Louisiana Hurricane Fund, a group founded by Tulane students to help rebuild the city of New Orleans.

Stephen Richer, the Tulane student behind the U’s T-shirts, said it was all a big misunderstanding between his organization and the T-shirt printing company, which told him that it was all right to the use the trademarked names.

“We were just trying to raise money for a good cause,” Richer said.

Richer said the group was originally given permission to sell the shirts in the Union building and at tailgating parties, but didn’t know it had to get permission to use the U’s name.

Hinckley had initially planned to demand that the students destroy or hand over the T-shirts, but after meeting with Richer, he decided to compromise with the group.

Hinckley and the students came to the agreement that if the group prints over the reference to BYU, it can sell the T-shirts, he said. But if the students don’t find a way to fix the existing T-shirts, they will still have to either get rid of them or relinquish them to U administrators.

Richer is unsure about whether the group will go through the process of having the shirts changed.

“We might just pack up shop and move on,” he said. “Our goal wasn’t just to raise money. We wanted to raise awareness, too, and we were effective in that. So I feel pretty chill about the whole thing.”

If it decides not to fix the shirts and begin selling them again, the organization will have to bear the financial burden of having the shirts made. Richer isn’t worried about not selling the rest of the shirts, however, because his group almost broke even based on sales made last week.

Law Professor John Tehranian said the legality of the issue is not as clear as it may seem.

“There is a legitimate free speech argument for the students as long as there isn’t a specter of false sponsorship,” he said.

Tehranian added that with a case like this, it is hard to determine how a court would rule; the first amendment protects the students’ freedom of speech, but the T-shirt could be seen as falsely leading people to believe that the U supported it.

Hinckley said that in the future, groups that want to use the U or BYU names or trademarks to raise money for a cause should obtain his permission first.

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