University Picks Up Another Victory in Chief Illiniwek Litigation

Sep 12, 2008

A federal judge from the Central District of Illinois has effectively dismissed the claim of an artist, who had argued that as the designer of the Chief Illiniwek logo, the rights to its use should revert back to him after the University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted to discontinue using the logo.
The judge held, however, that he had no jurisdiction to hear the case since plaintiff Jack Davis failed to assert any infringement of trademark law. Rather, his claim was merely a breach of contract claim.
Davis, a graphics designer and UI graduate, created the circle-shaped logo in 1980 that featured an image of an American Indian man in headdress and chest plate. The university paid him $210 for the logo.
Nearly a decade ago, the university and other schools came under fire for their use of Native American imagery tied to their athletic initiatives. There were several years of litigation that followed involving schools, the NCAA and others.
The University of Illinois seemingly moved away from the controversy in February 2007 when the UI trustees announced that it would no longer use the image of Chief Illiniwek.
A month later, Davis applied for a trademark for the logo and was rejected. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office noted that the university already had registered the logo.
Davis, represented by attorney, Bob Auler, sued the university in January of 2008, alleging that had been an oral agreement with former UI associate athletic director Vance Redfern that if the logo was rejected or discontinued by the trustees, it would revert to him. Davis asked the federal court to declare that he was the sole owner of the logo known as “Chief Illiniwek” or “The Chief” and that he had rights to the word marks when used on goods or services in conjunction with the logo. The plaintiff also claimed that he is entitled to an accounting of the UI trustees’ profits from the logo since March 13, 2007.
The federal judge, however, agreed with UI that it “does not have jurisdiction over (Davis’) constitutional claim because (Davis) is essentially seeking an adjudication of his contract rights.” He cited recent case law that there is no basis for federal jurisdiction for a breach of contract claim, even if the plaintiff claims his or her rights of due process were violated.
This was the first significant ruling since an Illinois state court judge dismissed a pair of lawsuits last year, which alleged that the University broke state law when it discontinued its use of Chief Illiniwek. That court found specifically that the school was within its rights to eliminate use of the Chief. One of the suits, which also accused the NCAA of coercing the university to drop Chief Illiniwek by imposing sanctions against its athletic teams, was filed by the two students who wore the costumes at men’s basketball and football games.


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