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A Decade After Realizing It Can't Threaten A Critic Online, UCLA Returns To Threaten A Critic Online

from the don't-they-teach-lawyers-the-1st-amendment-any-more? dept

Back in the early days of Techdirt, we used to talk about legal disputes involving so-called "sucks sites" -- i.e., web addresses that use a company or organizations' name along with a disparaging adjective, in order to setup a website criticizing the company. In the early 2000s there were a bunch of legal disputes in which overly aggressive lawyers would threaten and/or sue the operators of such sites, claiming they were trademark infringement. Spoiler alert: they were not trademark infringement. There was never any confusion over whether or not the sites were actually endorsed by the trademark-holder (because the sites were criticizing the trademark holder.) Nor, in most cases, was there any commercial activity, which is necessary for a trademark violation.

For the most part, lawyers have finally learned that going after sucks sites is a bad idea and we don't hear of as many cases these days. But they do sometimes pop up. The latest is particularly stupid, involving the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The details are laid out for you nicely by Adam Steinbaugh of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization focused on protecting free speech on campus.

You see, UCLA had done this before. Way back in 2009 it had threatened a critical site run by a former student:

In 2009, the university sent a letter to former student Tom Wilde, alleging that his website’s domain names, ucla-weeding101.info and .com, infringed on the university’s trademarks and amounted to a criminal act under California Education Code Section 92000, which purports to authorize public universities to police virtually any use of their name or acronym. FIRE wrote to UCLA in 2009, explaining that the First Amendment protects “cybergriping” websites and noting that the university’s purported authority under the California Education Code was contrary to the university’s obligations under the First Amendment.

After some hesitance, UCLA backed down.

But, as you likely guessed, they've done it again. And, here's the real kicker: UCLA sent a letter to the same guy over the same website. As Steinbaugh notes, the latest letter is less threatening and more friendly, talking about giving Wilde a "friendly reminder" and asking as a "courtesy" for him to "remedy" his claimed misuses of UCLA's trademark and... building images (?!?). FIRE again took up the case, reminding UCLA of what happened a decade ago and asking it to retract the letter. Incredibly, UCLA refused to do so, saying that Wilde was creating confusion by using similar images and design. However, a quick comparison of the two sites suggests that no one is going to be confused that the one on the left is officially a part of the one on the right:

UCLA also had claimed in its new letter that it sent that in response to "an inquiry" about Wilde's site. FIRE filed a public records request to find out who the hell "inquired." Turns out: it was a UCLA staff member on the external affairs team who sent an email pointing to the site and saying:

Grumpy former student has created this FB page and website…was thinking that the Royce Hall image and use of UCLA in the domain name might both be no-nos.

This was under the subject "protecting the brand."

Right. So this wasn't someone confused about the site. It was someone who thought that they could go after a site that was critical of UCLA by abusing trademark law -- something that has long been a non-starter, and which is an insult to the First Amendment.

You know how you protect your brand? By not threatening critics with a potential legal attack over First Amendment protected speech. And, also, not doing that twice.


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  • identicon
    Glen, 5 Nov 2018 @ 3:17pm

    Queue the Streisand effect

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2018 @ 3:23pm

    Wow, FIRE actually did something useful? Kudos to them for once; Neat to see them take some time off from using Koch Bros funds to make report cards claiming that any college that even dares to lift a finger to protect its students from hate and assault is an enemy of the First Amendment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Thad (profile), 5 Nov 2018 @ 3:26pm

    As someone who still has to use Lotus Notes at work, I miss lotusnotessucks.com. (I don't recommend going there; it's now a porn portal site.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 Nov 2018 @ 3:26pm

    And they call themselves an “institution of higher learning”.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2018 @ 4:15pm

    Headline

    Website critical of UCLA adds additional way in which UCLA sucks with evidence courtesy of UCLA.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ed (profile), 5 Nov 2018 @ 4:47pm

    Well, UCLA does suck. Now they've doubled-down on the proof!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jaack65 (profile), 6 Nov 2018 @ 5:53am

    Costs to Threaten & They SHOULD Know Better!

    'Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.'
    How much will this cost California Taxpayers & students to defend a countersuit on a sour-grapes legal attack by UCLA? Doesn't UCLA have legal support to ensure threats are not going to backfire? Does UCLA know what 1st Amendment says yet? FIRE should go for punitive damages for the threats on a second legal threat so close to the 2009 suit and websites where no UCLA "brand" confusion exists. The UCLA president and those responsible for these threats have to explain why 1st Amendment violations keep happening. There may be many other of these strong arms tactics that have been filed and people silenced and their rights violated. I give UCLA management a Grade of "F" on 1st Amendment and "F" on public relations!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2018 @ 2:27pm

      Re: Costs to Threaten & They SHOULD Know Better!

      All the student-loan forgiveness given to 501(c)(3) nonprofits like ACLU or other "free speech" advocates makes it pretty expensive as well for the taxpayers.

      Should any 501(c)(3) be allowed to focus on such a political issue?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Cybe R. Wizard (profile), 6 Nov 2018 @ 8:41am

    UCLA staff member

    It sounds as if the un-named UCLA staff member might need to sign up for a few classes. One suggests trademark law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bergman (profile), 6 Nov 2018 @ 9:58am

    Does UCLA have a law school?

    If so, I suspect bringing such a suit that clearly violates the First Amendment and is frivolous to boot might well harm their brand.

    If that's the quality of legal knowledge they impart, their diplomas aren't worth the paper they're printed on!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2018 @ 2:29pm

    Well at least when TheFireorgSucks website goes up they won't protest it.

    http://www.whittiergate.com/

    That's interesting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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