Sauk Rapids satirist Dan McCall defeats the NSA
McCall: "I was pissed. This sort of stuff has a hush effect on commerce and personal expression."
All images via Dan McCall
Shortly after the first Edward Snowden leaks hit the news cycle last summer and began to expose the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance activities, Sauk Rapids T-shirt artist Dan McCall came up with what promised to be two hot designs.
One of McCall's shirts paired the NSA's logo with this commentary -- "The only part of the government that actually listens." The other featured the Department of Homeland seal with its accompanying text altered to read, "Department of Homeland Stupidity."
As had been the case with many of McCall's previous designs, the shirts were offered for sale on Zazzle.com. (McCall also sells his shirts on his own site, LibertyManiacs.com.) But in a surprising and unusual move, shortly after they were made available, Zazzle quietly removed the shirts.
His suspicions aroused, McCall got in touch with his lawyer. Eventually, it came to light that the DHS and NSA had hit Zazzle with cease and desist orders demanding the shirts be pulled.
"The NSA argued that you had to have written permission from them to use any form of their seal, citing strange copyright law created back in the '50s by the same legislation that created the NSA," McCall told us. "The DHS in their cease and desist threatened pretty dire legal consequences and even imprisonment for people at Zazzle. They basically cited some obscure law about defacement of intellectual property and argued the 'Department of Homeland Stupidity' shirt was defacement of government property."
The T-shirt design at right landed McCall in hot water with the DHS.
McCall says his lawyer immediately realized the legal rationale justifying the orders was weak, but Zazzle still had to take the situation seriously.
"They couldn't say anything, and their lawyers were freaking out," McCall said. "The broader marketplace was very afraid about the situation, because the way the law works, sites selling these things could get a court order to shut their whole website down. They'd be screwed and unable to pay bills, so their hands were tied."
But this fall, McCall, with the help of government watchdog organization Public Citizen, filed suit against the NSA and DHS demanding they drop their orders.
"The thing is, it was so absurd," McCall said. "Every lawyer I spoke to was just outraged or laughing, saying, 'This'll never make it to court, they can't win.'"
(For more, click to page two.)
"They settled for what we were asking for, which is our right to make fun of the agencies and use parody to make a statement," McCall said. "I'm pretty happy with it."
Asked why he thinks the NSA and DHS didn't want to go to trial, McCall cited both the legal futility of the arguments the agencies were making and their desire to avoid yet another negative news cycle.
"There was an outpouring of outrage about it, and the NSA has been having a few bumpier news cycles here over the past year," he said.
McCall said he's moved by the outpouring of public support coming his way since he sued, including a very generous offer from a California-based printing company named AnaJet.
"They were so miffed that this happened that they contacted me and offered to send me an industrial shirt-printer so nobody could shut me down," McCall said. "I was almost in tears. They said, 'We want to let you know we know how this business works and realize how bad things have gotten for you.'"
But in fact, things really weren't that bad for McCall, even if Zazzle was no longer selling some of his more politically inflammatory offerings.
Asked how much the orders hurt his business, McCall, whose shirts are sold on a number of sites, said, "A lot of people decided to just sell them anyway... I think I probably got some sales because people might want to wear contraband."
While he didn't seek damages, McCall will receive $500 to cover his legal expenses as part of the settlement.
Better yet, the NSA and DHS finally have to send him copies of the original cease and desist orders. (Zazzle, apparently afraid to send the orders along, merely had them read over the phone to McCall and his legal counsel.)
"I might frame the damn things when I get them," he said.
To read McCall's lawsuit and the settlement offer, click to page three.
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