The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the defence of a Californian man who received a cease-and-desist letter after posting a parody of a billboard advertisement for so-called “reparative therapy” on his website.

“The moment I saw the billboards last September, I was deeply offended. The inspiration for the parody I created came to me instantly. How would straight people feel if their very being, their sense of self was being so overtly disparaged?” said Justin Watt, a blogger from Santa Rosa, California.

He reacted to a billboard, sponsored by “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, which read, “Gay? Unhappy? www.exodus.to.” After seeing a photo of the billboards online, Mr Watt posted an altered straight version.

“Their response was to try to intimidate me into taking the image down. It’s troubling that an organisation as big as Exodus would go to such great lengths to silence its critics.”

Liberty Counsel, an anti-gay legal group representing Exodus, sent Mr Watt a cease-and-desist letter earlier this month claiming the parody violated Exodus’s intellectual property rights and threatening legal action if the parodies were not removed. In a response sent today to Liberty Counsel, the ACLU’s cooperating attorney, Laurence Pulgram of Fenwick West, LLP, called upon Exodus to drop its attempts to censor the site owner, pointing to case law holding parodies to be Constitutionally protected speech.

“Parodies like Justin’s are protected by the First Amendment as a form of political commentary. His point was to make a comment on a very important issue he has strongly held beliefs about: that Exodus’s tactics are wrong, that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, and that being gay doesn’t make you unhappy,” said Ann Brick, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

“Just as a group like Exodus has a Constitutionally protected right to say whatever it wants to about gay people, even when that view has been roundly condemned by every major psychological and medical organisation, Justin has a right to use parody to voice his opposition.”

The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and other mainstream mental health and medical groups have denounced reparative therapy, stating that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is successful and that the practice may in fact be harmful to those who undergo it.

“Justin’s use of Exodus’s own image to criticise its message is exactly the sort of speech the Constitution protects,” said Mr Pulgram, who heads the copyright litigation group at Fenwick West. “The law protects people like Justin from groups like Exodus that try to use copyright as a method of bullying their critics into abandoning their First Amendment right to express their opinions through parody.”

Mr Watt is represented by Brick, Pulgram, and Tamara Lange of the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project.

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