University With History Of Free Speech Violations Abuses Trademark Law In Clumsy Attempt To Shut Down Critical Blog

from the and-exposes-itself-for-the-lousy-caretaker-of-civil-liberties-it-actually-is dept

The best thing about IP laws is how they can be abused to stifle criticism. Sure, IP defenders don’t play up that aspect when entreating Congress to extend protections to decades past the creator’s death or when seeking to force lots of other countries to play by our own effed up rules. But it can’t be ignored. IP law is deployed as as an all-purpose censor far too frequently.

Even worse, those who use IP law as a silencing weapon tend to be the most inept wielders. Case in point, the recent “DCMA” notice sent by Office Depot’s lawyer to address supposed trademark infringement by Reddit, relating to a picture posted at a completely different site (Imgur) seven months earlier.

Here we go again. This time its the legal representation of Chicago State University deploying a variety of IP terms in hopes of shutting down a critical blog run and maintained by a handful of CSU faculty members.

A blog run by faculty members at Chicago State University (CSU) has been threatened by university lawyers with a cease and desist notice. Since 2009 the blog has posted information critical of CSU’s policies and hiring practices. The notice threatened legal action if the site is not disabled by Friday due to violations of ‘trade names and marks’ without permission and violations of University policies. The blog admin changed the name of the blog in the meanwhile to Crony State University and replaced an image on the page pending legal counsel. Also the blog is currently still active.

The letter, sent by CSU’s general counsel (and vice president), Patrick Cage, dances around for several paragraphs [pt. 2 of the letter here], throwing around a variety of sentences using variations of “trademark,” “service marks,” “trade name” and other such IP-related terms in hopes of making it sound like the real point of the letter is to protect CSU’s intellectual property — rather than simply a hamfisted attempt to shut someone up. Of course, there is no trademark claim here. Trademark covers uses in commerce, and the critical site is straight up criticism, not any use in commerce. The trademark claim is pretty obviously bogus right up front — and the school seems to know that, even as it sprinkles unrelated issues into its letter.

Considering Patrick Cage is not only the Head Lawyer but also the Vice President of an institute of higher learning, it’s a bit distressing to see him craft a paragraph as disingenuous as this — one that also includes a rather egregious misspelling.

Moreover, the lack of civility and professionalism expressed on the blog violates the University’s values and policies requiring civility and professionalism of all Faculty members. As an educational institution, the University encourages intellectual discourse. Such discourse often includes opposing viewpoints. Thus, high standards of civility and professionalism are central tenants of the University’s values and included in the standards of conduct required of faculty members.

In other words, criticizing the university is not civil nor professional. Also: civility and professionalism are behind on the rent.

Even if you give Cage and CSU the benefit of the doubt on this one and grant that a highly critical blog might “diminish the brand,” you are then faced with the long history both Cage and the university have with stomping out speech they don’t like.

As the original Chicago Tribune article notes, the university has made attempts in the past to control the narrative.

Last year, Chicago State officials instructed faculty and staff that only authorized university representatives could share information with the media — and that everything from opinion pieces to social media communications could require prior approval.

Officials later said the policy was under review.

Why does the university feel compelled to control the narrative? Probably because its current “leadership” has come under fire for its willingness to grant itself double-digit pay raises while the rest of the staff was either given a 2.25% raise or no raise at all.

The administrators who received the salary boosts include general counsel Patrick Cage, who got a 17.4 percent increase, to $155,004; Renee Mitchell, the associate vice president of human resources, who got a 21.4 percent increase, to $144,996; and Provost Sandra Westbrooks, who received an 18.8 percent increase, to $208,092.

Two executive assistants in Watson’s office also received increases of about 20 percent after they were promoted, university spokesman Thomas Wogan said. All of the increases took effect Jan. 1.

Tom Wogan is a pretty good yes man. He’s also on hand to defend CSU’s misguided trademark C&D.

Tom Wogan, a university spokesman, said the legal notice was unrelated to quarrels between the administration and the school’s faculty.

“That’s not why they got the letter,” Wogan said. “It’s because they’re using the trademark without authorization.”

Yeah. OK. The real explanation is that Patrick Cage and CSU simply don’t get along with free speech.

Here’s a FOIA ruling from January of last year that springs loose a whole bunch of student data Patrick Cage tried to suppress by claiming it was exempt from the Chicago Tribune’s request. The Attorney General found in favor of the paper, ordering the university to release the data to the paper. Perhaps most telling is Cage’s justification for refusing to release certain data.

Based on the number of hostile and negative articles that Ms. Cohen has written about Chicago State University, its students, faculty and administrators, the University asserts that it would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy to release any of the names of individuals requested by the Tribune.

That’s a pretty novel defense for withholding information. The AG wasn’t impressed and the data was released to Cohen and the Tribune, with the behavior of those associated, including Cage himself, presumably portrayed negatively.

The university also retaliated against its own campus newspaper for publishing stories that reflected negatively on the administration. The resulting lawsuit (filed in April 2011) concluded with a judge finding the school had violated the First Amendment rights of the paper’s editors with its actions. It was ordered to pay $2,500 in damages and over $200,000 in legal fees, the latter of which Cage feebly contested, only to get slapped by the irritated judge.

In ruling on the request for legal fees, the judge rejected as “unconvincing” Chicago State’s insistence that the fees should be reduced to reflect that the plaintiffs won only a “minimal” legal victory. In fact, the judge noted, the plaintiffs’ lawyers prevailed on every legal and factual point that mattered, and were entitled to full compensation.

Then there’s this 2010 lawsuit filed by a former attorney for the school, who claimed the school’s new president retaliated against him for refusing to withhold documents from a FOIA response.

Chicago State University fired its senior legal counsel for responding to FOIA requests about the controversial hiring of a new president, the attorney claims in Cook County Court. James Crowley claims the new president, Wayne Watson, threatened his job and ordered him to restrict the flow of information to Tribune reporters and a faculty member, who had requested it, and fired him when he refused to do so…

Crowley says that in August 2009, in the midst of gathering the documents, he was called into the president’s office.

Crowley says Watson tried to persuade him that “only two pages consisting of the moving company bill were responsive,” though Crowley insisted that “numerous additional pages related to the residence should be tendered in order to be in compliance with the FOIA request.”

Watson then grabbed his wrist and told him, “If you read this my way, you are my friend. If you read it the other way, you are my enemy,” the complaint states.

Cage allegedly was involved in this attempted burial of information as well.

On Jan. 26 this year, just days before SURS scheduled a hearing for Watson, it “sent follow-up FOIA requests to Patrick Cage requesting copies of the FOIA requests made to CSU and responses which had been prepared by Crowley and noting that Cage had failed to timely respond to prior requests for the materials,” the complaint states. “Crowley released all documents responsive to the FOIA request as required by law,” according to the complaint.

As a result, Crowley says, he was placed on one-week leave and then Watson fired him via letter, disregarding the university’s termination procedures.

Obviously the school and its lead counsel habitually attempt to stifle criticism. Of course, each attempted shutdown usually results in more critical speech. Not only are its actions counterproductive, they’re counterintuitive. Rather than let criticism flow by, indistinguishable from the millions of other angry voices flowing across the internet, the school has called attention to this blog, upping its readership and further spreading the negative portrayal of the school and its administration. And it’s done it in the clumsiest, most cowardly fashion — by wielding intellectual property as a weapon.

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Comments on “University With History Of Free Speech Violations Abuses Trademark Law In Clumsy Attempt To Shut Down Critical Blog”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Worth noting: the blog is fascinating reading

It appears that a number of administrators at Chicago State University have embellished/falsified their credentials, and that they’ve been rewarded with lavish raises for doing so — while of course that’s contrary to the professional standards of CSU (and every other institution of higher learning). The more I read, the more this reads like a club of cronies enriching themselves at the expense of the faculty, staff and students.

Anonymous Coward says:


A leftist organization that did something hypocritical?

How is this news? To be on the left requires intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy. At least is is possible to intellectually honest and sound on the right, despite that not being the norm either. But being on the left just flat out requires it out of the gates.

Believe in Evolution? Why in the hell would you even think of believing in philanthropy? You need the weaker and less able to die so that Evolution is served!

Believe in Michael Moore? A rich person that talks bad about other rich people to sucker stupid people into hating other rich people besides him?

*snicker* stupid… stupid people everywhere!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Surprise?

“Only an inferior primate like yourself talks in terms of “belief”. Actual human beings talk in terms of knowledge and understanding.”

If you believe that an inferior primate is able to get onto a computer navigate to a website and make a post then perhaps your “knowledge” and “understanding” could be called into question as well?

gyffes (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Surprise?

“Apes don’t read philosophy!”

“Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it.”

You may have staggered here, but your contributions are little more than the random banging on the keys of a few drunken monkeys. You certainly make no sense, are nowhere near on-topic, and generally are as desired as a syphilitic pecker at a nude beach.

Go and Boil Your Bottom.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Surprise?

First of all, I don’t even understand the argument that being on the left requires intellectual dishonesty.

Second, evolution is not darwinism. Evolution is creatures adapting to function better in their environment. Some cannot and they die out. It is not survival if the fittest or strong.

A rich person can still give honest critique of another rich person. Being rich does not disqualify an opinion, you have to acknowledge that their view on certain issues is skewed is all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Surprise?

“A rich person can still give honest critique of another rich person. Being rich does not disqualify an opinion, you have to acknowledge that their view on certain issues is skewed is all.”

So judge a person by what they say and not what they do?

You are a good example of the definition of intellectual dishonesty.

It is true that being rich does not disqualify, but doing the same thing that one lambasts the rich for doing does make one a hypocrite, which then disqualifies. Does it need to be spelled out so? If we humans are going to get along the first thing we have to do is not approach situations with double standards. This happens with everyone but right now I see far more of it from the like of Moore and the left in general. While I may plaster much negativity against the left does not mean I am give the right a pass either. Just mentioning the noticeable difference.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Surprise?

um, actually, evolution is more a panoply of random mutations, and those which confer benefits to the creatures to survive in that particular environment, pass on those mutations until they become the predominant genome…

its not ‘directed’, nor necessarily in ‘response’ to the environment: random mutations happen (cosmic rays, at least), most of those mutations are unexpressed or of no immediate consequence, some are deleterious under the particular circumstances, and those creatures will be disadvantaged, some are beneficial under the particular circumstances, and those creatures will be the ones that tend to survive and pass on those particular mutations…

its random ‘shit happens’, and some of the shit sticks…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Surprise?

No one is better than anyone else. The mere fact that you made reference to it implies that you believe in castes?

Some may be stronger or weaker.
Some may be wiser or more foolish.
some may be more intelligent or less intelligent.

But none are better than any other.
Wisdom from the mouths of babes is more common than wisdom of the professionals and public mouthpieces.

Baron von Robber says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Surprise?

Enemas are also used to introduce drugs, or in this case, concepts, when the patient refuses to take them.

I’m enjoying introducing the ideas of satire and sarcasm to you. My first comment was dripping with it even before the first keystroke.

Look at the name I post under for starters.

If you still don’t get it, I’ll explain it to your cat/dog/hamster/bacteria. Whatever will interpet to you best.

Baron von Robber says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Surprise?

“One might accuse you of having poor ability to satirize or offer sarcasm in a quality manor.”

The manors I frequent are of the finest quality. Very spacious.

“Mayhap the response provided was intended despite your views or attempts to be sarcastic or satirical on the matter?”


Charles Carreon, is that you?!?! Never seen double-downing like this since you left…..

out_of_the_blue says:

"The best thing about IP laws..."??? You've confused yourself.

Avoid sarcasm: not only might it confuse the casual reader before gets to your intended payload, but I believe thinking in that manner actually converts you to exact opposite of your stated beliefs. — And it’s always possible someone actually slips in putting out the double-think. In any case, I advise to just state the plain truth as you believe, and you’ll always be able to explain misunderstandings.

Anyhoo, first paragraph: blah, blah, all of copyright is bad because a few mis-use it. Just Techdirt boilerplate.

SO, minion, now that you’ve for the ten-thousandth blog post here stated the problem (without actually identifying the common elements that it’s yet again the Rich and powerful mis-using good tools), what’s your fix for it? — Mine is to limit power. That’s almost the definition of civilization. It must be consciously done continually, not let people accumulate power without end until they wreck all. — You tacitly here champion / defend one who’s pulling down the powerful, but you never really go after them yourself…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "The best thing about IP laws..."??? You've confused yourself.

Copyright and patent have always been the tools by which the rich and powerful gain control of the works of the creative. Supporting copyright and patent is supporting the maintenance of power by the rich that you despise, because they are the tools that they use to keep their position. Copyright and patent, by being transferable were designed for this, despite all claims that are for the benfit of creators and inventors.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

Removing a trademark does not restrict anyone’s
> speech or force anyone to change the name of
> any team.

It’s a clear attempt at economic extortion.

“You can change the name because we don’t like it, or we’ll (try and) torpedo your business by letting everyone else copy and sell your merchandise.

Trademark law was never designed for that purpose, so using it to accomplish that goal is misuing IP to punish speech that some people don’t like– which is exactly what this web site constantly criticizes.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

Trademark law does allow trademarks to be
> denied because they are offensive. If this
> one is offensive (I am of no opinion on this
> point), then denying it is entirely within
> the intention of the law

IP law allows a lot of things that this site regularly disagrees with. Never before has TechDirt taken the position that “Well, it’s in the law, so that must make it okay.”

The fact that some politician managed to squeeze in a clause in the trademark statute that allows censorship of unpopular ideas hardly means its appropriate to wield IP law like club to censor things that some people don’t like. That’s not why we have trademarks in the first place. It’s using trademark as an end-run around protected free speech, to accomplish through economic extortion that which opponents couldn’t accomplish through normal legal means.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Re: Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

Doesn’t like? They’re a swell team! (Well, mediocre at worst.) It’s not about liking the team.

How about a name change to the “Washington Drunken Ape-Faced Leprechauns”? Different ethnic group, similar slur level, but maybe they’re less touchy than those we stole the land from and then annihilated. Touchy bastards.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Re: Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

> Even worse, those who use IP law as a silencing
> weapon tend to be the most inept wielders.

You mean like TechDirt’s recent advocacy of using trademark law to silence/change the name of a team it doesn’t like?

Oh, man. You got us. Both instances use the word “trademark” so they’re completely identical.

JMT says:

Re: Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

“You mean like TechDirt’s recent advocacy of using trademark law to silence/change the name of a team it doesn’t like?”

You mean Techdirt advocating for trademark law to be correctly and appropriately applied to prevent use of a demonstrably racist term that a large number of people find offensive. Kinda odd you’d see any equivalence between that story and this one.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

You mean Techdirt advocating for trademark law
> to be correctly and appropriately applied to
> prevent use of a demonstrably racist term that
> a large number of people find offensive.

The purpose of trademark law is to prevent consumer confusion regarding the origin of branded items. It’s purpose is not now, nor was it ever, to prevent the use of racist terms in business or save people from being offended.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Just a little bit of hypocrisy...

I know what the purpose of trademark law is,
> but there are parts of trademark law that deal
> specifically with this issue, as there should be.

I don’t agree that there should be– the government shouldn’t be in the business of protecting people from being offended– but if we’re going to have such requirements, then they should at least be applied fairly and objectively.

When the Patent & Trademark Office applies the same ‘no offensive names’ standards to other organizations whose names contain racially offensive or divisive terms in the same way that you would have them apply it to the Redskins, then at least everyone will have equal treatment under the law.

In other words, when groups like the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund lose their trademarks for containing offensive racial terms, then maybe you can make a case for taking away the Redksin’s trademark, also.

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