SALT LAKE CITY — A federal court of appeals has lifted a gag order that barred the founders of Salt Lake Comic Con from discussing its ongoing trademark battle with San Diego Comic-Con.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the order barring the founders of the Salt Lake event from discussing their ongoing trademark lawsuit, sharing public documents and posting about the case on personal social media pages violated the First Amendment.
"Unlike other cases involving attorneys or the press, grisly crimes or national security, the district court's orders silence one side of a vigorously litigated, run-of-the-mill civil trademark proceeding," the judicial panel wrote in its opinion Thursday.
The district court "clearly erred" in restricting the free speech rights of Salt Lake Comic Con co-founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, quoting a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that emphasized "the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury," according to the ruling.
San Diego Comic-Con, the internationally known comic and pop culture convention, is suing Farr and Brandenburg, claiming that by calling their event a comic con, the organizers are violating trademark laws, creating confusion and attempting to profit from the California convention's success.
Salt Lake Comic Con argues the term has been generally and generically accepted to describe conventions featuring comic books and associated media for decades. Since the lawsuit was filed, Brandenburg has vocally defended the convention's name and warned that the challenge threatens dozens of events, not just Salt Lake Comic Con.
San Diego Comic-Con holds the trademark on "comic-con," with a hyphen, but later abandoned its 1995 bid for the rights to "comic con."
In July, San Diego successfully sought the order suppressing Salt Lake Comic Con's ability to talk about that case, claiming organizers' public defense of their position would taint a prospective jury pool.
But with 1.75 million prospective jurors in the San Diego area, the appellate court noted, even if every one of Salt Lake Comic Con's estimated 32,500 Twitter followers and 120,000 annual attendees lived in the region, a 12-person jury could still be found.
The appellate court's order maintains that well-established and less restrictive procedures for jury selection would successfully weed out any potential jurors with preconceived opinions about the case.
The competing comic and pop culture conventions have been locked in a legal battle since August 2014, one month after Farr and Brandenburg drove their branded Salt Lake Comic Con Audi to the San Diego event.
With both sides unwilling to budge through months of settlement talks, the case is set to go before a jury Nov. 28.
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