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.