Edgy T-shirts bring legal controversy

The students behind a controversial T-shirt that was sold on campus last November to raise money for hurricane victims came under legal fire for using the U 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 were 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 stated “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 was 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 and at tailgating parties but didn’t know it had to get permission to use the BYU’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 said that if the group printed over the reference to BYU, it could sell the T-shirts. But if the students didn’t find a way to fix the existing T-shirts, they would still have to either get rid of them or relinquish them to U administrators.

Richer said that printing over the remaining T-shirts wouldn’t be worth the hassle. He and the other students discontinued selling the T-shirt.

“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.”

Law Professor John Tehranian said the legality of the issue was not as clear as it may have seemed.

“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.