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Zerorez Operator Sues Olympics Over Free Speech


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Michael Kaplan, owner of a Zerorez franchise, said he was "sick of being cynical" and decided to sue the U.S. Olympic committee over free speech.

Michael Kaplan, owner of a Zerorez franchise in a Minneapolis suburb, simply wanted to congratulate the “11 amazing Minnesota athletes” competing in the Olympics in Rio, using social media to do so.

But when his attorney warned him against it, citing aggressive actions against other small businesses by the U.S. Olympic committee to protect its trademarks, Kaplan decided to sue in federal court. “We are looking to stop encroachment on our free speech and our constitutional rights,” said Kaplan.

As co-owner of a 150-employee Zerorez carpet-cleaning franchise in St. Louis Park, Kaplan regularly tweets about happenings large and small, and planned to do so enthusiastically during the Olympic Games.

But his attorney, Aaron Hall of JUX Law Firm in Minneapolis, warned him that the U.S. Olympic Committee guards its trademarks ferociously, and often goes after businesses to cease and desist any mention of the games.

“It’s easy to be cynical about it and just accept it as fact,” that organizations like the USOC are going to clamp down on use of social media and protect their marks, Kaplan said. “However, I was sick of being cynical. I decided I was frustrated enough with the overreach, and thought we should seek a declaratory judgment to get clarity on the rules."

On his behalf, Hall filed a lawsuit August 4 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. Hall called it a pre-emptive strike, asking the court about actions one intends to take to verify that they don’t violate anyone’s rights, Hall explained. “We were going to tweet about the Olympics, but the Olympics has issued very clear guidelines…so you can’t even mention” the games.

 “The Olympics is having a chilling effect on small businesses’ free speech,” Hall said. Hall said the suit does not seek any monetary damages, nor does Hall deny the USOC’s right to protect against businesses acting like official sponsors when they’re not, for example. It’s the general conversation on social media that he believes is protected free speech.

As of August 10, Hall hadn’t heard anything from the U.S. Olympic committee, and didn’t know if he would before the games end on August 21. He was considering filing a motion for an expedited hearing on the matter, but if nothing happens during this year’s games he figures any clarity will be useful in the future.

“I really hope it’s peaceful, and the Olympics backs off and says, yeah, we have free speech in this country,” Hall said. “I have heard from a lot of people. I think it really touched on a nerve.”

Hall and Kaplan met while in law school, and Kaplan completed a law degree from the University of Minnesota but pivoted to the carpet-cleaning business instead. Kaplan’s father and uncle are both prominent attorneys in the Twin Cities.

That may be part of the reason Kaplan turned to the courts. “We were both frustrated and cynical,” said Kaplan about himself and Hall. “We said somebody’s going to do something about it. Why don’t we step up?

Kaplan said he talked with his franchisor before filing the lawsuit. “Obviously we’re not acting without their blessing. They said if you’re passionate about it, go for it,” Kaplan said.

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Tom KaiserTom Kaiser is associate editor of Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3209, or send story ideas to tkaiser@franchisetimes.com.
 
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Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at
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