April 14, 2010 / 6:58 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. court to hear suit over "Tea Party" name

MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. judge has agreed to referee a dispute among Florida political activists over who can use the phrase “Tea Party” in their name.

A protester holds up a sign while waiting for the Tea Party Express bus to arrive on the steps of the state capitol in Denver, Colorado March 31, 2010. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A trial has been scheduled to begin on December 6 in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, Florida, in a lawsuit that questions whether anyone has a trademark or intellectual property right to the “Tea Party” name.

Hundreds of groups call themselves part of the Tea Party movement whose name alludes to the 18th century U.S. revolt against tea taxes and British colonial rule. They usually oppose big central government, deficit spending and President Barack Obama, but there is no hierarchy or formal affiliation among them.

While Tea Partiers generally oppose federal government intervention, they have turned to the federal court to resolve a dispute that arose after Fred O’Neal, a central Florida lawyer and longtime anti-tax crusader, registered the “Tea Party” as a Florida political party in August.

O’Neal said the name is an acronym for the “Taxed Enough Already” party and that he hoped to recruit candidates to run against both Democrats and Republicans.

Nearly three dozen people and groups who called themselves part of the Tea Party movement filed suit against O’Neal and two associates in January, accusing them of trying to “hijack” the movement and confuse the public.

“They’re trying to promote candidates that we wouldn’t support,” said plaintiff Everett Wilkinson, who has been active in Tea Party events and groups. “The people trust us more than the political parties. We work hard to keep that trust.”

The plaintiffs said O’Neal’s group is a “fake” Tea Party, a claim he scoffs at.

“I looked for the rule book but I never found it,” O’Neal said on Tuesday. “I don’t know what it takes to be an authentic Tea Party versus a fake Tea Party.”

IS IT A PLOT?

The plaintiffs, many of whom have “Tea Party” as part of their group names, said they feared O’Neal would sue them for trademark infringement or violation of intellectual property rights. Florida law says the names and symbols of registered political parties cannot be used without permission of the party’s executive committee.

Each side also questioned the other’s political motives.

Tea Party supporters lean Republican — 59 percent of Republicans support the movement compared with 36 percent of independents and only 9 percent of Democrats, according to a March poll by Harris Interactive.

Wilkinson contends that O’Neal is plotting to run third-party candidates in order to split the Republican vote and help elect liberal Democrats.

O’Neal contends the Republican Party is behind the lawsuit against him and is trying to shut down his political party because “they don’t like the idea of having to compete for fiscal conservative voters.”

The case is 10:cv-80062-KAM, South Florida Tea Party, Inc. et al versus Tea Party et al.)

Editing by Vicki Allen

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