Science blogger Keith Cowing though that using the Presidential Seal in an innocent blog post was no big deal. He was wrong.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cowing made a post about a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on his blog, Space Ref. He had no idea that he would get a phone call from the White House over use of the logo.
But that’s exactly what happened. And the White House wasn’t calling about his excellent science blog; they were calling because he had the nerve to use the seal of the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Cowing says that White House staffer Rick Weiss had a problem with the seal’s placement near an ad, which White House lawyers worried might be interpreted as an endorsement of the product.
Cowing had to pixelate the logo to make sure people wouldn’t think that the White House was in the business of endorsing products. Check it out, it’s quite humorous. He included a message letting readers know that he blurred the image because he received a call from the White House.
It is unclear what the legal basis for the claim is, but the situation is familiar. In July of 2010, the FBI made a similar demand to Wikipedia for its use of the FBI seal one a Wikipedia entry about, you guessed it, the FBI. The FBI’s claim was made under 18 U.S.C. sec. 701, which is targeted at use of government seals to fool the public. Wikipedia’s lawyers responded with a comprehensive letter pointing out that their use wasn't deceptive. The FBI went away to fight another battle.
Cowing’s use of a government logo isn’t deceptive either. The seal is clearly used in relation with the news article and the ad is no closer on his blog than ads are on news websites and in most newspapers and magazines.
In actuality, the seal of the Executive Office of the President of the United States is widely used all over the internet. Sometimes it’s even used in close proximity to advertising. The threatening calls from the White House seem more like attempts to curb free speech than anything else. It’s quite pathetic actually.
It raises the question; doesn’t the White House have better things to do than bully bloggers who are involved in free speech? Sadly we live in a world where the White House needs more training on how the First Amendment works.