Online Speech Threatened at UCLA and Santa Rosa Junior College

By August 20, 2009

LOS ANGELES, August 20, 2009The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has unconstitutionally ordered a former student to take down a website criticizing UCLA or else face criminal and civil action. Tom Wilde’s private, non-commercial website is located at ucla-weeding101.info. After UCLA demanded he take down his site by this past Monday, Wilde, who has so far refused to comply, came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

“California has seen a disturbing trend of public colleges and universities attempting to censor or chill private speech online,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “California’s schools violate the First Amendment when they threaten legal action against ‘cybergriping’ sites that couldn’t possibly be mistaken as having the college’s endorsement.”

A former UCLA graduate student, 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. Then, on August 6, UCLA Senior Campus Counsel Patricia M. Jasper sent Wilde a letter arguing that the domain name constitutes “trademark infringement and dilution.” Although the website is clearly not commercial, Jasper wrote that “[t]he commercial use of any of the names of the University of California” is “a criminal offense under California Education Code, section 92000.” Jasper also wrote that UCLA was acting in part to protect its “reputation” and ordered him 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 is legally unnecessary, the site now contains a prominent disclaimer 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.”

“There is very little for UCLA to review in this matter,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “The university’s only choice is to immediately retract its unconstitutional threats against Wilde’s protected speech. Until then, Wilde remains in limbo and under the threat of unlawful action.”

FIRE prevented a similar effort by the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2005 to misuse the same section of the California Education Code to shut down the site www.thedarksideofucsb.com. The site criticizes what the site’s owner perceives as UCSB’s acceptance of a dangerous and lawless campus culture.

FIRE also has made progress in similar efforts to stop Santa Rosa Junior College’s unlawful ban on the use of the initials “srjc” in e-mail addresses and website domain names, again misusing the California Education Code. FIRE wrote SRJC President Robert Agrella on July 1 explaining that while the Code legitimately bans certain uses of the college’s name, the blanket ban was unconstitutionally overbroad.

After receiving an unsatisfactory response from Agrella in which he stated SRJC’s intent to continue efforts “to stop unofficial use of the college’s name,” FIRE wrote Jack Scott, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, encouraging him to publicly lift the ban. In a second response directed to all faculty and staff on August 17, Agrella acknowledged that “SRJC has no interest in limiting speech that is ‘unambiguously private.’” While this represents a step in the right direction, students have yet to be informed that the ban is lifted. Scott has not replied to FIRE.

“We commend President Agrella for taking this step, but his work is not yet done,” Kissel said. “SRJC urged faculty and staff to alert students to the ban, and students now also must be informed that their ‘unambiguously private,’ non-commercial online expression is safe from prosecution. FIRE will be closely monitoring the state of free speech at SRJC.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.

Tell UCLA and SRJC to stop fighting the Constitution and to restore the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Write a letter to UCLA and SRJC here.

CONTACT:
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org

Gene D. Block, Chancellor, University of California, Los Angeles: 310-825-2151; chancellor@conet.ucla.edu
Robert Agrella, Superintendent/President, Santa Rosa Junior College: 707-527-4431; ragrella@santarosa.edu
Jack Scott, Chancellor, California Community Colleges System: 916-322-4005; jscott@cccco.edu

 

Schools: Santa Rosa Junior College University of California, Los Angeles