By Bill McAllister, Washington Correspondent
Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders were all able to get computer-generated postage stamps for their 2016 campaign mail.
But Anatol Zukerman, a Massachusetts artist, couldn’t get his admittedly political design approved, and a federal judge has told the United States Postal Service it must address his complaint.
U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper rejected the USPS’s arguments that Zukerman’s dispute over computer-generated postage stamps must first be heard by the Postal Regulatory Commission.
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The judge’s Dec. 6 ruling means that the issue of whether Zazzle Inc. acted properly in rejecting the 78-year-old artist’s stamp will be decided by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Zukerman and his agent alleged in a 2015 lawsuit that the Postal Service violated his constitutional rights by refusing to print a stamp that would have attacked the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling.
That decision allowed corporations to make independent political donations and has been highly controversial.
Zukerman’s rejected stamp showed an Uncle Sam figure trapped behind a snake in the shape of dollar sign and carried the words “Democracy is Not for Sale.” Though difficult to see here, “Citizens United” appears on the snake’s body.
The artist, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., wanted to use the stamps to promote an art exhibit he was planning for Washington.
In the lawsuit, Zukerman and his agent charged that Zazzle printed customized stamps for three presidential candidates, Republicans Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush and Democrat Bernie Sanders, but rejected his design.
That showed that the USPS allowed Zazzle to act “in a discriminatory manner,” Zukerman and Charles Krause Reporting (Zukerman’s agent) charged in their lawsuit against the USPS.
The USPS sought to get Judge Cooper to send the case to the PRC, arguing that the case did not belong in the district court.
Cooper rejected that argument, saying that Congress did not intend issues such as the “free speech” issues raised by the lawsuit to be decided by a body mostly concerned with stamp prices and services.
“This case involves the content of Customized Postage products issued by a third party vendor, and is not about stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service,” said USPS spokeswoman Darlene Casey. “The court’s December 6 action was to deny a motion to dismiss, and did not involve any decision about the merits of the case. The case remains in litigation, and we have no additional comment at this time.”
A spokeswoman for Zazzle in Redwood City, Calif., declined to comment on the dispute.
Efforts to contact Zukerman’s lawyer and agent were unsuccessful.
In a 16-page lawsuit filed Dec. 9, 2015, Zukerman and his agent argued that the USPS had allowed Zazzle “to promote some causes and silence others without explanation.”
The suit contained images of Zazzle stamps printed for the three presidential candidates, Christian religious figures, and atheists.
Those stamps were allowed despite a USPS regulation that says customized stamps should be “[c]onsistent with the Postal Service’s intent to maintain neutrality on religious, social, political, legal, moral or other public issues.”
“On information and belief, the custom stamps Zazzle prints and sells are not approved, endorsed, or reviewed by USPS,” the lawsuit alleged. “They do not, therefore, constitute government speech.”
“Instead, by authorizing Zazzle to print customers’ custom postage stamps, and by inviting and allowing members of the public to express themselves on stamps as long as they are willing to pay a fee, USPS has intentionally made that space generally available for public discourse and thus has created and designated a public customized-U.S.-postage-stamp forum.”
“Once USPS opened the realm of U.S. postage stamp to customized stamps designed by the public, it was obligated to ensure that Zazzle operated the public forum in a constitutional manner by setting rules that are reasonable and both content and viewpoint neutral.”
By rejecting Zukerman’s design as “primarily partisan or political in nature,” the USPS has sanctioned “unlawful content discrimination,” the lawsuit alleges.
This story was updated Dec. 13, 2016.