UCLA Drops Demand That Online Critic Stop Using "UCLA" in His Web Site:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports:

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has withdrawn its unconstitutional demand that a former student take down a website criticizing the university. UCLA had demanded that Tom Wilde shut down his private, non-commercial website, ucla-weeding101.info, by last Monday.... [Y]esterday, only a few hours after FIRE publicized Wilde’s case, UCLA informed FIRE that its demands against Wilde were being withdrawn.

“Kudos to UCLA for quickly realizing that the First Amendment protects criticism of the university -- even online,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “UCLA’s prompt and welcome recognition of the First Amendment freedoms at stake should send a powerful message to other California public colleges that have made similar threats, such as Santa Rosa Junior College, that the law does not support their position.”

Wilde launched the website ucla-weeding101.info last month to argue that he was “weeded out” of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education for his dissenting views. On August 6, UCLA Senior Campus Counsel Patricia M. Jasper sent Wilde a letter arguing that the domain name constituted “trademark infringement and dilution” and suggested the website might be a criminal offense under the California Education Code. Jasper also wrote that UCLA was acting in part to protect its “reputation” and ordered Wilde to shut down the site by August 17.

FIRE immediately wrote UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block, pointing out that no reasonable person would mistake Wilde’s site as being an official UCLA site or having the college’s endorsement, and that the First Amendment protects the use of organization names on “cybergriping” sites. Further, although a disclaimer for such an obviously unaffiliated site is legally unnecessary, the site now contains a prominent statement explicitly alerting readers that the site is “not supported, endorsed, or authorized by UCLA or the University of California.”

On August 18, Jasper notified FIRE that FIRE’s letter was under review and that she “anticipate[d] having a fuller response ... in the very near future.” Yesterday, FIRE took the case public, and within hours Jasper faxed FIRE to say that, while the university would appreciate more changes to the site, “[i]n any event, the University hereby withdraws the demands made upon Mr. Wilde in our letter to him of August 6, 2009.” ...

My sense is that the original demand was mistaken, for reasons I've discussed before -- the First Amendment protects people's right to use other entities' names (certainly including government agencies' names) in criticizing them.

When the use is commercial and likely to mislead reasonable consumers, for instance if someone sells T-shirts with the UCLA name in a context which leads people to falsely believe the sale is authorized by UCLA, that could indeed be punished. It's possible that such commercial sales might even be punished if there's a disclaimer announcing that the seller is entirely independent of the university (though I think that they shouldn't be, and that people and institutions shouldn't have a monopoly on the use of their names in merchandising, whether under the right of publicity for people's names or under trademark law for institutions and products). But when it's clear that the use is critical of the institution, and especially in a noncommercial context, there seems to me no basis for stripping the speech of constitutional protection.

In any case, while UCLA started out wrong on this, I'm very happy that it has withdrawn its demand.

Disclosure: I will be a keynote speaker at FIRE's 10th Anniversary event this October. Also, as I expect most of our readers know, I teach at UCLA School of Law.

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