T-shirt turmoil: ‘Barack Chalk Jayhawk’ T-shirt never should have been allowed, KU says

KU laments 'Barack Chalk Jayhawk': T-shirt touting candidate in spotlight after lawsuit

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius pays a visit to Kansas University on Monday to bolster support for Barack Obama before today's Democratic caucuses. She showed off a T-shirt with Hilary Tilkens at the Kansas Union.

Move over “Our Coach Can Eat Your Coach.”

There’s another T-shirt that Kansas University says is a violation of trademark regulations, though there’s no plan to take any action.

At a campaign event in Kansas City, Mo., earlier this year, presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed a group of his supporters from KU as Barack Chalk Jayhawks.

Instant T-shirt.

Small problem: KU has a trademark on the Rock Chalk Jayhawk slogan.

The KU Young Democrats sought and received permission for a one-time, 100 T-shirt run in support of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, so long as only members of the group received the shirts.

Marc Langston, a May KU graduate, was the organizer and purchaser of the shirts. Langston said he sought permission from KU to make the shirts because he wanted to show students the university would work with students.

“I was honestly thrilled they let us print the shirts,” Langston said.

The problem came when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius – at a Lawrence campaign event – was photographed in the shirt. Langston said there was a moment of panic when he realized someone outside the club had received a shirt, violating the original agreement.

KU Young Democrats adviser and social welfare professor Alice Lieberman said she began receiving calls from people asking to purchase the same shirt. The Kansas Athletics Department, which monitors trademarks for KU, stepped in and told the Young Democrats not to print any more shirts.

But Lieberman wondered why the university would block student groups from using the slogan. She raised the issue again recently in a post on her blog after reading the Joe-College decision.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the university and they’ve been good to me,” she said. “But if we’re supposed to encourage students to be proud of being a Jayhawk, why limit how they can use the symbols?”

Lieberman said she felt students, who pay tuition and fees, should have a bit more leniency when it came to using the university’s marks.

Associate athletics director Jim Marchiony said the danger of the “Barack Chalk Jayhawk” shirt was that circulating large numbers might imply that KU was offering an endorsement of Obama.

“We’re a state university,” he said. “We should never be used to further a political candidacy.”

Marchiony said a line needed to be drawn before it appeared that KU was endorsing a certain presidential candidate. Marchiony said state statute also forbids universities from using their marks to endorse political candidates or positions.

In retrospect, he said, permission for the shirt probably shouldn’t have been given in the first place.

Lieberman said she wasn’t sure she agreed with the claim that the shirts might imply university endorsement.

“If someone could work (John) McCain into Jayhawk or KU or Rock Chalk, I would fully support that,” she said. “I actually tried, without any success.”

Mike Hoeflich, a professor of law at KU and a copyright law expert, said an argument could be made both that this was a copyright violation and an issue of political speech.

“This differs from the recent Joe-College issue,” Hoeflich said. “These Obama shirts are expressly political. I doubt anyone would argue that ‘Muck Fizzou’ is a political statement.”

Hoeflich said an argument could be made that because the shirts are politically driven, they fall under free speech. However, he said a stronger case could likely be made that a registered trademark shouldn’t be used to support a politician unless consent was given by the trademark holder.

“There’s just so much gray area,” he said. “That’s what we have judges and lawyers for.”