The Arizona Board of Regents is suing the owner of an Instagram account advertising “ASU covid parties” and Facebook, which owns Instagram, in federal court.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday, the regents contend an account called “asu_covid.parties” on Instagram is misusing Arizona State University’s trademark and “spreading dangerous misinformation about Covid19 just as students are returning to ASU’s campuses to begin classes.”
Fall semester started on Thursday at ASU, with some students attending in-person classes.
The regents oversee ASU and the other two state universities in Arizona. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona.
The account, which describes itself as an “event planner” on Instagram, first posted on July 19, saying it was “time to party!” In the account’s bio, the organizer claims to be “THROWING HUGE PARTIES AT ASU.”
It is unclear who runs the account. The lawsuit names “John Doe aka ‘asu_covid.parties'” as the defendant, along with Facebook. In part, the lawsuit hopes to discover the “true identity of the parties behind this account,” the lawsuit says.
A direct message to the account seeking comment on the lawsuit Thursday evening was not returned.
There has been no evidence that any person associated with the account has thrown large parties. But the account has drawn the attention of students, faculty, alumni and the community, some of whom have commented on the posts to deride whoever is running the account.
For some, the account has become emblematic of the worst fear about returning to campus — that some students will completely disregard COVID-19 protocols and put others in danger.
Six days ago, the account posted that party details would be coming soon. The party would be registered as a “peaceful protest” and take place at a consulate so there was “no way it will be shut down.” The account has called COVID-19 a “hoax.”
The lawsuit alleges the account is engaging in unauthorized use of ASU’s trademark and school colors, known as “trade dress.” ASU’s school colors are maroon and gold. One alumnus threatened to cut off support for ASU because the person thought the account was affiliated with the university, showing that the use of ASU’s trademarks is causing confusion, the lawsuit says. The account has also spread false information about the university, ASU contends.
ASU filed a trademark infringement report with Instagram first, asking for the account to be removed or altered, but Instagram has refused to remove or modify it, the lawsuit says.
A copy of the response from Instagram, included in the exhibits of the lawsuit, says the company did not believe there was a clear trademark infringement. Instead, the account appeared to be “using your trademark to refer to or comment on your goods and services.” Instagram said the content wasn’t likely to “confuse people as to the source, sponsorship or affiliation,” and Instagram wasn’t able to act on ASU’s report.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An initial investigation by the university into the account shows it may be located in Russia and could be used to “sow confusion and conflict and to interfere with the health of the Arizona State University community by trying to worsen the pandemic here,” the lawsuit says. The lawsuit did not provide evidence for the claim of Russian involvement. A phone number attached to the account appears to be based in Canada.
ASU wants a temporary restraining order, expedited discovery, a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction to stop the account from using ASU’s trademarks and to stop Instagram from allowing the account to continue using its service.
The suit seeks a jury trial. ASU wants to receive damages, as well as an “award of profits derived from the infringement and false advertising.”
In a statement Thursday evening, ASU said it believes the account’s posts violate Facebook and Instagram’s own COVID-19 guidelines. ASU said it also sent a message to the owner of the account, as well as tried to handle the matter directly with Instagram, to no avail. ASU hopes the owner of the account will become known through the lawsuit.
ASU believes the account is operating with an intent to disrupt the university’s operations.
“We simply cannot and will not allow the institution and its trademarks to be used for the manipulative and inappropriate purposes of those who cowardly hide behind social media collaborators like Instagram,” ASU President Michael Crow said in a statement.
ASU requires students to wear face coverings and practice social distancing on campus. ASU has said it will take action against people disregarding these protocols even if they are off campus.