Blogger Can Display County Seal in Blog Posts–Rothamel v. Fluvanna County

By Eric Goldman

Rothamel v. Fluvanna County, Va., 2011 WL 3878313 (W.D. Va. Sept. 2, 2011)

I don’t use images on this blog, but many bloggers include images to help illustrate their posts. It’s not uncommon, then, for bloggers to include government seals or other insignia in posts discussing the government. I’ve never seen an empirical study of readers’ perceptions when presented with such displays, but I find it hard to believe that readers are confused in the slightest.

In Fluvanna County, Virginia (part of the Charlottesville metro area), Bryan Rothamel (a blogger at http://flucoblog.com) included the county seal when blogging about county stories. The county Board of Supervisors deserve mad props for apparently having solved all of the major problems facing them, because Rothamel’s seal usage quickly emerged on their priority list ahead of other, obviously more trivial, issues. In response, the county passed an ordinance with the following restriction:

Sec. 2–7–2. Seal Deemed Property of the County; Unauthorized Use Prohibited.

The seal of Fluvanna County shall be deemed the property of the County; and no person shall exhibit, display, or in any manner utilize the seal or any facsimile or representation of the seal of Fluvanna County for non-governmental purposes unless such use is specifically authorized by law. (Ord. 9–15–10; Ord. 2–16–11)

Violations were punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $100 fine or both.

Rothamel brought a First Amendment challenge to the statute, which the court grants. The court notes that the statute restricts speech and can’t survive even intermediate scrutiny because it’s not narrowly tailored. The court notes: “This sweeping prohibition encompasses a substantial number of uses of the seal that would not suggest government endorsement, such as the display on a website of an exact copy of an official County news release that contains the image of the seal next to the text, or the publication in a newspaper of a photograph of a County official delivering a speech from a podium upon which the County seal is attached and visible.”

The court compares this regulation with the regulations governing federal seals and related logos, noting that they restrict uses that might communicate sponsorship or endorsement. This statute wasn’t so targeted, and I don’t think anyone truly believes that readers will think a blog post was sponsored or endorsed by the county because the post displays the seal. The state of Virginia intervened in this lawsuit because its seal restriction is similar to the county’s; it appears Virginia’s seal restrictions would not survive a challenge either. Similarly, this case brought to mind the FBI’s ridiculous position that Wikipedia couldn’t display the FBI seal. The Wikipedia entry recaps the situation, including then-Wikimedia GC Mike Godwin’s withering response. This case suggests that the FBI’s position indeed wasn’t defensible.

The court also rejects the county’s self-serving designation of the seal as “county property.” I’m not sure exactly what that’s supposed to mean. Perhaps such designations matter when dealing with tangible assets. When applied to intangible assets, it is just another way of restricting speech.

The net effect is that, under the First Amendment, bloggers should be free to display government seals or insignia in their blog posts about the government agency. With my newly confirmed freedom, I’m now displaying the seal of Fluvanna County, Va., which, as county seals go, is actually quite pretty (those are persimmons at the top):

God bless America!

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