After ACLU Intervention on Free Speech Grounds, Japan-America Society Immediately Drops Lawsuit Against Newport Journalist

July 20, 2018 11:30 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI – Within hours of learning that the ACLU had agreed to represent Newport blogger Christian Winthrop, the Japan-America Society dropped him from a lawsuit it had filed alleging that he had engaged in trademark infringement — based solely on articles he had posted on his website. ACLU executive director Steven Brown hailed the Society’s about-face, saying that the suit against Winthrop, who runs the Newport Buzz, was “a blatant violation of his First Amendment rights.”

The suit, which remains pending in federal court against some City of Newport officials, has its origins in a dispute between the Society and the City of Newport over the running of the Black Ships Festival, which the City had helped fund in the past. Last month, the Society decided to move the festival to Bristol, and when the City decided to go ahead with its own celebration, the Society demanded that the City stop referring to it as the Black Ships Festival. In response, the City renamed its competing festival the “Newport-Shimoda Sister City Celebration.” But the Society sued Newport officials for having initially used the term “Black Ships Festival” to refer to its event.

Winthrop had published articles about the planned Newport event also using the “Black Ships Festival” name. Even though he changed those articles about the event to reference the new name, he was still sued for trademark infringement.

After being served with papers in the lawsuit this week, Winthrop contacted the ACLU for help, leading to yesterday’s actions by the Japan-America Society dropping him from the suit.

Winthrop is the son of Newport Mayor Henry Winthrop, and he believes he was sued for that reason. He noted that the Newport Daily News had also initially referred to the City’s event as the “Black Ships Festival” in stories that remain online, but that paper was not sued.

Winthrop said today: “I don’t think they thought that I was resourceful enough to contact the ACLU and that I’d have to waste a bunch of money defending myself. Once the ACLU came on board, they knew the game was over.”

The ACLU’s Brown added: “This litigative effort to punish Mr. Winthrop merely for publishing accurate stories – and potentially preventing him from publishing accurate stories in the future – was an outrageous violation of freedom of the press. No journalist should be dragged into court on such bogus grounds. We are pleased we were able to bring this attack on the First Amendment to a quick halt.”

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