SCLC activist says Cobb school district trying to suppress free speech and conversations on racism

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

By Arielle Robinson

A local SCLC activist who is also a Cobb County parent, grandparent and anti-racist activist says that the Cobb County School District is attempting to squash discussions about racism by targeting him because of a flyer he shared on Facebook.

Richard Pellegrino has eight kids and multiple grandchildren who have attended Cobb County schools.

Pellegrino is also the Field Director of the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that Martin Luther King Jr. founded in the late 1950s.

In late May, Pellegrino shared this flyer, encouraging people to attend a protest at the Cobb Board of Education’s June meeting this Thursday.

The flyer calls on people to support diversity in the district as well as showing support for the Black members of the school board.

The leaflet also states the event is to honor Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday celebrating slaves’ 1865 emancipation in Texas that is increasingly being recognized across the United States.

On Tuesday, June 1, Suzann Wilcox of the Nelson Mullins law firm — the law firm representing the CCSD — emailed Pellegrino telling him he must take down the flyer immediately or risk having the district take legal action against him for trademark infringement.

Wilcox told Pellegrino he was using the school district’s logo, and therefore the intellectual property of CCSD, to promote an event that was not sponsored by the district.

Part of the letter from CCSD’s law firm said:

“Including the District-owned symbol in your communication(s) has created confusion as to the source and sponsorship of this event and is misleading to the public. Further, the District prohibits the use of its logo without express written permission in the website terms of service … Accordingly, the District demands that you immediately and permanently cease and desist from any and all use of the District’s logo, symbols, marks, and all formative variations thereof. We also demand that you remediate the confusion you have caused by specifically clarifying that this event is in no way sponsored by the District.”

Pellegrino said that he was taken aback when he received the letter for multiple reasons.

One of the reasons was that Pellegrino did not make the flyer and he said the district never asked if he did.

Pellegrino says the school district knows him very well and he has met with numerous people associated with the district on multiple occasions, so why couldn’t someone have simply picked up the phone and contacted him about the flyer?

“Instead they chose draconian measures, siccing their attorneys on me,” Pellegrino said.

Pellegrino also said he was surprised that the CCSD is threatening this action against him when CCSD’s accreditation is under review for complaints that the school board is not listening to concerns of the Black school board members and by extension, county parents.

He said the district doing so further jeopardizes the district’s accreditation.

Pellegrino lastly said threatening a lawsuit against him is a waste of taxpayer money.

Although the potential lawsuit is against Pellegrino alone, the parent and activist says that the lawsuit is representative of a larger issue in the school district — the district’s refusal to recognize and deal with racism.

Pellegrino says there are “endless” accounts of racist incidents in Cobb County schools but the white Republican-led school board does nothing about them.

“[CCSD] is trying to stifle our First Amendment right to talk about racism,” Pellegrino said. “They’re the ones trying to cancel the history of the US and not have it taught if it involves racism in our schools.”

Pellegrino says the threats by CCSD about the flyer are purely political and a “frivolous” attempt to pander to the political right.

He said the school district has no interest in taking any anti-racist initiatives and so the district will try to suppress any attempt by concerned residents to organize against racism.

Paul Levy, an attorney from the Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, represents Pellegrino and has experience dealing with online free speech and intellectual property cases.

Levy said the former Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia contacted him about Pellegrino’s situation.

Levy said CCSD threatening to sue Pellegrino for trademark infringement is “ridiculous.”

Levy said that it is only logical for someone protesting an organization to use the logo, as it helps people clearly recognize what is being protested.

“[Pellegrino] wants [protestors] to go to the Cobb County school board meeting, he doesn’t want them to go to Fulton County. He wants Cobb County,” Levy said. “So he uses their logo for an easy identification of the subject of his criticism. That’s not trademark infringement. That’s just saying what you’re talking about.”

Trademark infringement would be using another person’s logo to get the public to buy one’s product, Levy said.

Pellegrino is not selling a product, so the flyer is fair use and he is simply exercising his First Amendment rights, the attorney said.

In a letter responding to Wilcox, Levy states that Pellegrino is “not engaged in the sale or advertising of goods and services; he is, rather, engaged in noncommercial speech on political issues, which is at the core of the protections provided by the First Amendment. Many courts have held outright that trademark laws … do not apply to noncommerical speech that is directed to discussion of a trademark owner, in part to avoid unnecessary conflict with the First Amendment.”

Levy said that the First Amendment keeps being brought up because if a Cobb County court issued an injunction against Pellegrino it would be a clear violation of his First Amendment rights.

Levy also pointed out that Wilcox is an education law specialist, not a trademark lawyer, so she is “just a little out of her depth here.”

Levy does not expect CCSD to go forward with the legal threats against Pellegrino.

“I think they’d be very foolish to file it and I expect this is the end of it. My letter is probably the end of it, but we’ll see,” Levy said.

Despite CCSD threats, Pellegrino said he will not take down the flyer as he did not create it and it sets a precedent that one cannot share controversial posts online.

“Even if I had created it, I would not take it down, because it is not in violation of any laws — civil or criminal,” Pellegrino said. “And that’s been pointed out copiously by the attorneys from Public Citizen to the attorney for the school board. And it’s a basic right, a basic free speech First Amendment right.”

When the Courier reached out to the school district, a district spokesperson stated “We have no comment on pending or ongoing legal matters.”

Despite repeated requests to speak with Wilcox, she did not reply.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She is the current president of the university’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and former editor at the KSU Sentinel.  She enjoys music, reading poetry and non-fiction books and collecting books and records. She enjoys all kinds of music and reading poetry and non-fiction books.

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