Victory for Free Expression: UCLA Drops Unconstitutional Threats Against Internet Speech; Online Speech Still Threatened at Santa Rosa Junior College

By August 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES, August 21, 2009The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has withdrawn its unconstitutional demand that a former student take down a website criticizing the university. UCLA had demanded that Tom Wilde shut down his private, non-commercial website, ucla-weeding101.info, by last Monday. Wilde turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help, and yesterday, only a few hours after FIRE publicized Wilde’s case, UCLA informed FIRE that its demands against Wilde were being withdrawn.

“Kudos to UCLA for quickly realizing that the First Amendment protects criticism of the university-even online,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “UCLA’s prompt and welcome recognition of the First Amendment freedoms at stake should send a powerful message to other California public colleges that have made similar threats, such as Santa Rosa Junior College, that the law does not support their position.”

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. On August 6, UCLA Senior Campus Counsel Patricia M. Jasper sent Wilde a letter arguing that the domain name constituted “trademark infringement and dilution” and suggested the website might be a criminal offense under the California Education Code. Jasper also wrote that UCLA was acting in part to protect its “reputation” and ordered Wilde 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 for such an obviously unaffiliated site is legally unnecessary, the site now contains a prominent statement 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.” Yesterday, FIRE took the case public, and within hours Jasper faxed FIRE to say that, while the university would appreciate more changes to the site, “[i]n any event, the University hereby withdraws the demands made upon Mr. Wilde in our letter to him of August 6, 2009.”

UCLA’s recognition that the use of its name on private, non-commercial websites is perfectly legal should have a powerful effect on its fellow California public institution, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC), which has unconstitutionally banned the use of the initials “srjc” in e-mail addresses and website domain names, again misinterpreting 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, SRJC’s 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.

“In the wake of UCLA’s decision, it’s hard to imagine that President Agrella or Chancellor Scott has any further justification for not informing SRJC’s students and faculty about their constitutional rights,” said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s Vice President. “Every day that they do not do so is another day during which the SRJC community’s free speech rights are unconstitutionally chilled.”

This latest controversy over online speech is nothing new at California’s public colleges. 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 criticized what the site’s owner perceived as UCSB’s acceptance of a dangerous and lawless campus culture.

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

CONTACT:
Robert Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org
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