Smokey Bear’s time in the resistance might be short-lived.
Last month, the Pittsburgh t-shirt company Cotton Bureau began marketing a shirt designed to express opposition to the Trump administration. The design featured a bear wearing a hat with the word ‘Resist’ on it.
To representatives of the U.S. government, it looked a lot like another bear they knew: Smokey Bear, the icon of forest fire prevention who’s been featured in public service ads by the federal government since the 1940s. In addition to telling people to prevent forest fires, Smokey is also “a highly recognized advertising symbol and is protected by Federal law,” according to the U.S. government.
LISTEN: Smokey Bear’s Short Life in the Resistance
On Wednesday, a company that manages Smokey’s licensing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a cease-and-desist letter to Cotton Bureau telling it to stop selling its ‘Resist’ t-shirt — and destroy any remaining designs with Smokey on it.
“He’s not a political figure, he doesn’t have a political view,” says Libby Kavoulakis, owner of the Metis Group, which also manages the USDA’s Woodsy Owl licensing. “He’s an American icon for wildfire prevention, so any use that’s not consistent with that, we are obligated to send a cease-and-desist letter.”
Jay Fanelli, co-founder and lead designer at Cotton Bureau, declined to comment. In February, he told The Allegheny Front the company had sold 9,000 of the shirts, one of several anti-Trump designs that quickly became bestsellers on its site. Some of the proceeds from the shirt, which was titled “Only You Can Prevent Alt Facts,” were to benefit parks and conservation groups, Fanelli told the Allegheny Front.
Kavoulakis says the Cotton Bureau shirt is part of a wave of Smokey ‘Resist’ shirts her firm has seen and responded to since the election. “We have sent out maybe 50 [cease-and-desist letters] in the past couple months to other people who are making these ‘Resist’ t-shirts.”
Kavoulakis says this isn’t the first time someone’s tried to use Smokey for something other than his original, legally protected purpose. The firm has also shut down a Smokey Bear anti-fracking campaign.
“We had a lot of Smokey Bear smoking marijuana [t-shirts] where everyone thought that was a funny use of Smokey. When all the different states legalized marijuana, a lot of illegal t-shirts came out that we shut down, and we’re still monitoring and finding illegal uses with that image,” Kavoulakis says.
Kavoulakis added that no one from the Department of Agriculture or anyone from the Trump administration ordered the letter to be sent out. “[We] did not target or focus on just this company or the ‘resist’ movement,” she says. “We contact anyone with an illegal use. If the product is not produced by one of our licensees or if the image is used inappropriately, we send a cease-and-desist letter. It is standard practice, regardless of the President, current events, social movements or anything else.”
Congress actually passed a Smokey Bear Act in 1952 that gives the Department of Agriculture control over the bear’s image. But the question of whether the government’s claim over Smokey violates the First Amendment hasn’t really been tested all that much, according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Michael Madison.
“There’s not a lot of precedent on this. It’s not like Smokey Bear has been in court a lot,” Madison says.
One exception: In the 1990s, a court sided with environmental groups using a “chainsaw wielding Smokey Bear” to protest U.S. Forest Service practices. Madison says that in many cases, small companies or individuals choose to pull their design rather than challenge the government in court. The cease-and-desist letter sent to Cotton Bureau warned the company is subject to $150,000 in fines if it does not comply.
Cotton Bureau no longer has the t-shirt on its website.