Mom Behind Viral 'Success Kid' Meme Threatens to Sue Congressman Who Used the Photo to Fundraise

Morgan Smith

A Florida mother has threatened to sue Rep. Steve King over an unexpected issue: memes.

Laney Griner, 44, is the mom credited with one of the first viral memes: “Success Kid,” a photo she took of son Sam when they were at the beach in 2007 and he was 11 months old.

That image of Sam clutching sand as if in a triumphant first-pump, smirking at the camera, became a famous and endlessly copied symbol of self-congratulation and determination.

Last week, King’s campaign did its own riff on the meme — and this is where the trouble starts.

The campaign posted the photo of Sam superimposed on the U.S. Capitol in order to promote fundraising efforts for King’s next congressional run.

“QUESTION: Do you enjoy our memes?? If so, please click the link below and throw us a few dollars to make sure the memes keep flowing and the Lefties stay triggered. Thank you!!” the campaign’s Facebook post read.

(That post appears to have been deleted. A rep for King did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The same post, using the meme of Griner’s son, also appeared on King’s WinRed page, a fundraising platform for conservative politicians. It’s unclear if that post was deleted.

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Stephen Rothschild, a lawyer representing Griner, sent a cease-and-desist letter to King on Monday demanding the posts be removed by Wednesday morning. Rothschild also demanded refunds for all donations the campaign received in response to the “Success Kid” post, in addition to several other requests, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by PEOPLE.

Otherwise, Rothschild said, Griner would sue King, his campaign and WinRed for copyright infringement and violation of Sam’s right of publicity.

Griner copyrighted the image of her son in 2012, the letter states.

“You have misrepresented to the general public that you are acting on behalf of and even have some proprietary interest in ‘Success Kid,’ ” her letter states.

King, an Iowa Republican, has a history of inflammatory rhetoric. In 2019, he drew backlash for questioning how white supremacy was offensive.

In a later statement to The New York Times, King attempted to clarify what he said, calling himself a “nationalist” who did not support “white supremacy” but instead was an advocate for “western civilization’s values.”

“I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I reject those labels and the evil ideology they define,” he said.

Prominent members of both parties called for King’s resignation in August after he suggested the world’s population would be slim were it not for rape and incest.

“The majority of U.S. consumers reject your political and other views, often vehemently, as they have a right to do,” Rothschild’s letter states. “Those people may be repelled by any association with your politics and campaign and, therefore, unwilling to purchase products from legitimate licensees of the ‘Success Kid’ meme.”

Rothschild tells PEOPLE that as of Tuesday morning, he had not received a response from King.

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Griner says she discovered King’s campaign post with her son on Thursday, after a reporter from Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group, tweeted about it.

“It was pretty shocking to see my baby’s face there, attached to something so negative,” Griner tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t like it at all.”

She says that she did not give King permission to use the photo. In a series of tweets, she called King a “vile man” and the Republicans a “disgusting party.”

Griner, who identifies as liberal, says she’d prefer the meme of her son not be associated with politics — though it depends on the message.

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Former President Barack Obama used the “Success Kid” meme in 2013 to promote immigration reform, an issue Griner says she supports. They also obtained her permission first, she adds.

King, however, did not ask for her permission, Griner says.

“Success Kid” has been featured in a number of high-profile ads by companies including Coca-Cola, General Mills and Microsoft, her letter states.

The Coca-Cola ad aired during the 2015 Super Bowl as part of an anti-bullying campaign.

“It’s really about the message and who it is … we always want to keep it positive, I’d never want it associated with people filled with so much hate, who want to limit the rights of others,” Grimer says. “Politics seems a little adult for baby photos anyway.”