ABOR sues Facebook, 'asu_covid.parties' account owner over trademarks, misinformation

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday includes screenshots from an account promoting 'COVID parties' with no mask requirement

The Arizona Board of Regents filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of ASU against the operator of Instagram account "asu_covid.parties" and Facebook Thursday, alleging trademark violations, false advertising and spread of harmful misinformation about public health. 

The lawsuit asks for the account to be shut down, a request the suit said Instagram initially refused. It also seeks relief from Facebook "as a contributory infringer" of the University's intellectual property rights. 

"Because of the serious public health issues involved here, ASU is seeking expedited discovery, as well as a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction" to stop use of trademarks and to ultimately shut down the account, the suit said. 

The account had 23 posts and just over 970 followers before it was removed Friday afternoon for violating Facebook's policy. It advertised parties with no masks, claiming students who return to campus will continue to host and attend parties. It has criticized the University's mask requirement and other steps it is taking to try and protect the health of students, faculty and staff. 

"We have removed the account in question for violating our policies," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. "We disagree that the account infringes any trademark rights ASU might have."

The Arizona Republic, which first reported the lawsuit, said that the operator of the account, claiming to be an event planner, has yet to reveal their identity and there has been no evidence they have thrown large parties at or close to the University. 

The lawsuit outlines the number of students enrolled and its previous social media efforts to promote educational opportunities, events, services and athletic programs at the school and said the account has caused too much confusion. 

Documents cited in the suit include a tweet from an alumnus who said they would remove stickers and license plates from their car that show the University's colors and name. 

The suit also said the University and ABOR received messages from alumni who said they would cut off funding from the University because they believed the account was serious and connected to the University. 

READ MORE: University plans to punish partying on and off campus

The University was made aware of the account in July and tried to solve misinformation and other issues with Instagram and the account operator, a spokesperson said in a statement. 

"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," ASU President Michael Crow said in a statement. 

The lawsuit also claims, based on a University investigation, that the account is based in Russia or has a Russian connection that could be reason for the operator to "sow confusion and conflict" and an intentional effort to "disrupt the operations of the University," a spokesperson said in a statement. 

The University statement said it believed the account not only violated the University's rights but violates the social media giant's guidelines about posting information relating to the coronavirus

The suit includes screenshots of posts and claims they each falsely assert a partnership with the school and contradict, undermine and interfere with public health messaging. A spokesperson confirmed the policy is still requiring students to wear masks inside University buildings and around campus where social distancing is not possible. 

They also reiterated a previous statement that said students they find violating or ignoring the health guidance issued in June, jeopardizing their own health and that of others, will be subject to discipline under the student code of conduct.

The account operator did not respond to a direct message.

ABOR and the University are seeking a jury trial. The two parties are seeking to receive damages and payment from the account’s trademark infringement and false advertising.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. to include a statement from Facebook that said the account was removed for violating Facebook policies. 


Reach the reporter at pjhanse1@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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