BATON ROUGE, LA (WVLA) — The message of a billboard along Interstate 10 near Port Allen reached all the way to federal court.
A judge heard arguments Wednesday from the state and MoveOn.org about the legality of a billboard that criticizes Gov. Bobby Jindal for not expanding access to Medicaid. The billboard, placed on the westbound side of the interstate between Grosse Tete and Port Allen, uses Louisiana's tourism slogan, Pick Your Passion, with colors and fonts similar to official state materials.
The case hinges on whether or not the billboard constitutes a trademark violation, or whether it is a parody.
"We respect MoveOn's right to be critical, of the governor, of me, of the state, in whatever manner they want to," Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said Wednesday after the hearing, "as long as they don't use a registered trademark that's been protected in both state and federal jurisdictions."
The state says the billboard has hurt tourism, wasting taxpayer dollars.
"The taxpayers of this state have invested an awful lot of money in promoting that brand, to bring people to Louisiana and have people travel throughout Louisiana," Dardenne explained.
"Rather than worrying about MoveOn's billboard, they should be trying to figure out how to get health care to 242,000 people who don't have it," said Anna Galland, MoveOn.org Executive Director of Civic Action.
MoveOn.org counts millions of Democrats and liberal thinkers among its national membership. One of its main goals is to convince Republican-led states like Louisiana to accept more federal money for Medicaid, which covers health care for the uninsured.
"We're proud to be out there," Galland stated, "telling folks what's going on, shining a light on the situation. And we will keep speaking up, keep fighting, until we get access to health care for all these 242,000 Louisianans and 5,000,000 Americans."
MoveOn.org runs similar campaigns in eight other states, each playing off that state's official tourism slogan. But because of this lawsuit, the billboard has been more successful than MoveOn could have planned.
"I think the state is, if anything, bringing attention to the issue," Galland said, "and again, the issue is people who are out there who do not have access to health care because of a decision of the governor of the state right now."
Dardenne, who leads the state's tourism efforts, sees something less than altruism in the group's campaign.
"MoveOn not only put up the billboard, they then ran TV commercials talking about the fact that this litigation was out there," he noted. "So they've obviously been using it to raise money, and using it to promote their own cause, which is another example of why we wanted to make certain we brought litigation to say, 'you just can't go in there and use this mark that's registered and that belongs to the people of Louisiana.'"
Dardenne mentioned that he was initially hesitant to file a lawsuit when he heard about the billboard, until private attorney Dale Baringer offered to try the case at no cost to the state.
"That's a great message that the people of Louisiana ought to understand," Dardenne said. "It's very seldom that you see a lawyer saying, 'let me do something for free.'"
The judge is expected to return a written ruling in the case next week.
Galland said the billboard's initial run is scheduled to end in a few days. But depending on the judge's verdict, it may be renewed, so its message can continue to reach everyone who drives over the Mississippi River Bridge into Baton Rouge.