Online Speech Threatened at UCLA and Santa Rosa Junior College

By August 20, 2009

As our press release today notes, yet another California institution has abused the California Education Code for the purposes of shutting down a private website. This time, the culprit is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which has unconstitutionally ordered former student Tom Wilde to take down his private, non-commercial website or else face criminal and civil action.

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. Less than a month after launching the site, 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. Wilde has refused to accede to this demand, and has contacted FIRE for help.

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."

As we pointed out to Chancellor Block, 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, which criticizes what the site’s owner perceives as UCSB’s acceptance of a dangerous and lawless campus culture. UCSB dropped its investigation of the site within a day of being contacted by FIRE.

UCLA has not been quite so swift. On August 18—one day after the deadline UCLA had imposed on Wilde to remove his site—Jasper notified FIRE that FIRE’s letter was under review and that she "anticipate[d] having a fuller response … in the very near future." We hope to take her at her word, for every extra day UCLA takes is another day Wilde has to endure the looming threat of legal action.

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.

This is progress, and we commend Agrella for it, but the job is certainly not done. SRJC urged faculty and staff to alert students to the ban, and as such must now inform students 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 will keep Torch readers updated on UCLA and SRJC, but readers wanting to take action themselves may contact Chancellor Block and President Agrella here.

Schools: Santa Rosa Junior College University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Attempt to Stop Critical Website from Using Letters ‘UCLA’ Santa Rosa Junior College: Overbroad Ban on “Unofficial” Use of College’s Initials