Jerry Falwell Jr. sues Liberty University claiming exploitation of 'Jerry Falwell trademark’

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. | REUTERS/Mike Segar

Former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. has filed a lawsuit against Liberty University for the alleged exploitation of the trademark and image of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded the Evangelical Christian university in 1971, without consulting the Falwell family or "authorization of the Dr. Jerry L. Falwell Family Trust."

"This is an action arising from Liberty University's unauthorized exploitation of the JERRY FALWELL trademark and the name, picture, and/or portrait (together 'name or image') of Jerry Falwell in advertising and promoting Liberty University, without consulting with the Falwell family and without the authorization of the Dr. Jerry L. Falwell Family Trust," the 24-page lawsuit filed in Virginia last Thursday alleges. 

In addition to Falwell Jr., the lawsuit also lists the Dr. Jerry L. Falwell Family Trust as the plaintiff and Liberty University as the sole defendant.

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The lawsuit argues that even though Liberty University's founder intended his "brand of religious goods and services" for the "benefit of his three children" the Evangelical Christian university has been exploiting the brand for itself, including the founder's handwriting.

"For more than fifty years, the distinctive JERRY FALWELL trademark has stood as a nationally recognizable symbol for the late Dr. Jerry L. Falwell's brand of religious goods and services. Upon his passing in 2007, Dr. Falwell left his valuable JERRY FALWELL trademark in a trust for the benefit of his three children. Liberty, however, has recently begun to misappropriate the Trust's valuable trademark — and Dr. Falwell's name and image — for itself," the lawsuit alleges.

"Liberty has misused not only Dr. Falwell's name, image, and trademark, but has also taken Dr. Falwell's own handwriting to create a custom font for Liberty to use in advertising (including a magazine cover); has created footprint engravings from a pair of Dr. Falwell's shoes to adorn a JERRY FALWELL walking tour path on its campus; and has presented the public with renderings of a 'Jerry Falwell' hologram meant to be a walking, talking, interactive version of Dr. Falwell."

Falwell Jr. argues that the use of his father's likeness by Liberty University in promotional material "is likely to leave consumers confused as to the relationship between Liberty University and the JERRY FALWELL brand and the Falwell Family Trust."

The lawsuit claims several other ways Liberty University has "wrongfully exploited" the trademark to "confuse consumers" into believing that Liberty "is endorsed or sponsored by, or otherwise associated or affiliated with" the Jerry Falwell brand and the Falwell Family Trust.

"Liberty never consulted with — let alone sought the approval of — the Falwell family before embarking on an apparent campaign to wrap itself in the JERRY FALWELL trademark and the Jerry Falwell name and image," the lawsuit reads. "Nonetheless, the Falwell Family Trust sought to avoid filing this lawsuit, but Liberty has refused to cooperate. Liberty thus left the Trust no option but to initiate this action to protect its rights."

Liberty University did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit from The Christian Post on Tuesday but has released a statement to media outlets stating that the institution is confident that it "will ultimately prevail in this case and the university will be able to maintain its use of the name of its founder."

The Liberty University statement stresses that the lawsuit is in "response to a specific request" from Falwell Jr., who is just "one trustee of the Falwell Family Trust, for the university to "pay $7 million dollars for his permission to continue to use the name of Liberty's founder [Dr. Falwell] for the next four years."

"Included in his demand is the expectation that, in effect, former president Falwell [Jr.] would also have total editorial control of Liberty's use of the name of Liberty's founder," the Liberty statement reads. "The university declined the request; so, this lawsuit was filed by Mr. Falwell."

In March, Falwell Jr.'s brother, Pastor Jonathan Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, was named Liberty University's chancellor. He will assume the role at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. 

Falwell Jr.'s lawsuit comes nearly three years after he was forced to resign as president of Liberty University in the summer of 2020 after it was alleged that he and his wife had an affair with Giancarlo Granda, who was 29 at the time, that began eight years earlier. Granda later attempted to blackmail the couple. Falwell Jr. said he was shocked to learn about his wife's affair, but Granda claimed his wife engaged in intimate liaisons with Falwell Jr.'s knowledge.

It also follows another lawsuit he filed against the university earlier this year, claiming he's owed $8.5 million in retirement funds. In a media statement, Liberty University said it is confident it is "not legally required to pay these funds and will file the appropriate responses with the federal court."

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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