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The Olympics and free speech

As if there isn't enough controversy accompanying the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, one more item has been added to the list: free speech. What's next, gun control? Actually, that has already been debated.

Utahns are quickly finding out that the Olympics consists of much more than athletes hurtling down a ski jump, madly chasing a puck or doing a triple toe loop. The competition, which just happens to be why the Games are held, is, at this stage anyway, the mere frosting on a rather bulging and still growing cake.Many of the issues interwoven with the Games are complex -- as has become evident with the west-east light-rail debacle. The free speech dilemma qualifies for the complex category.

Games' organizers insist the issue is not about free speech but about property rights, in particular the right to use registered trademarks like the words "Olympics," "Salt Lake City 2002" and the Olympic rings and mascots.

Local First Amendment attorneys, however, contend that to claim T-shirts and bumper stickers with anti-Olympics political messages can be regulated as violations of SLOC trademarks is ludicrous.

While marketing officials are obviously not pleased with a bumper sticker that states "2002 Olympics: This Is Not the Place" or a T-shirt with the five Olympic rings fashioned out of handcuffs, it's the potential property rights infringement rather than the message that concerns them the most.

Companies pay huge sums of money for the right to market officially licensed merchandise and SLOC gets a share of the wholesale cost of every item sold. By the end of the Games, SLOC expects to have raised $40 million to $50 million from official merchandise sales. SLOC therefore has every right to prosecute individuals or companies in violation of that agreement.

Similarly, the National Basketball Association was entitled to take action against those who tried to market products with what appeared to be official NBA trademarks when All-Star Weekend was held in Salt Lake City several years ago.

However, given its image, SLOC would be wise to think seriously before going after those selling a few T-shirts or bumper stickers that make fun of the Olympics. SLOC, after all, is the organization that didn't want debate about whether the Games should come to Salt Lake taking place in the schools.

SLOC should protect its Olympic trademark rights -- but with caution.