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Last month, U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., was sent a cease-and-desist letter from the U.S. Marine Corps regarding his use of the Corps’ emblem and motto in his campaign mailers that the Corps said violated its trademark protection law.

Did you know the Marines’ slogans, logos and seals are protected marks under the law?

Indeed, all service branches have graphic and word marks that are trademarked so that they may only be used under specific guidelines and exceptions. And the Corps has its own special statute.

Under this law, no one may, except with the written permission of the secretary of the Navy, use or imitate the seal, emblem, name or initials of the Marine Corps in connection with any promotion, goods, services or commercial activity in a manner suggesting the use is approved or endorsed by the Corps. Anyone violating that rule is subject to suit by the attorney general.

It seems Hunter, who is under federal indictment for corruption charges in a trial set for later this year, just can’t get enough trouble. His fliers were attacking his campaign opponent, linking his campaign opponent and two other Democratic representatives of Middle Eastern descent, to terrorism. The letter had in it the Marine Corps’ anchor, globe and eagle emblem along with the Corps’ motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” The language in the flier has been criticized in many quarters as patently Islamophobic.

Mr. Duncan, himself a former Marine, having served more than a decade before, did not state in the literature that the Corps was not endorsing his campaign or that the Corps did not give permission for his use of the marks in that letter.

While trademark protections of the nation’s military logos are not designed to protect the armed services as moneymaking enterprises (the emblems and seals are not licensed), they are designed to prevent businesses from gaining profit themselves from falsely implying endorsement. And they are protected from use in political activities.

It is one of the bedrocks of this nation’s constitutional structure that the armed forces remain strictly neutral in political affairs. They are, after all, controlled by civilian authority.

Use of service flags and such are liberally allowed for all manner of monuments, appreciation events or anything not seeking commercial or political ends. I can proudly plant the globe, anchor and eagle banner in my yard without having to contact the DoD trademark and licensing office.

And the First Amendment might allow me to besmirch the integrity of that emblem in my yard if I want, in spite of a host of regulations against such conduct.

The mark rights afforded the services also protect against unauthorized merchandising. But what if the flag maker wants to make money with a satirical tweak of the Corps’ emblem and doesn’t get permission? Do the Marines have the right to stop all sales? A First Amendment rights issue might be there too, would it not?

After the desist letter from the Corps, Duncan’s office says he has suspended his letter.

Which, by the way, misspelled Israel.


Brett Kepley is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Inc. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.