Last November, in a blatant attempt to censor faculty speech, Chicago State University’s (CSU’s) legal counsel sent a cease-and-desist letter to Professor Phillip Beverly, claiming that Beverly’s CSU Faculty Voice blog infringed on the school’s trademarks and created the false impression that the website reflected CSU’s views as an institution. We at FIRE shared the blog contributors’ views that the site, with its frank criticism of the school and its banner reading “Crony State University” and “Where we hire our friends,” was clearly not CSU’s institutional website. However, CSU renewed its objections last week in a second letter demanding that pictures of the campus and references to CSU be removed from the site.
Like CSU’s first letter, the second one does not pass the laugh test. Among CSU’s complaints are the allegation that the URL, csufacultyvoice.blogspot.com, was chosen to confuse readers into thinking that it was an official CSU site. Nevermind the fact that university websites have their own top-level domain suffix—.edu—distinct from the masses of blogspot.com web pages. Hilariously, the letter takes issue with the blog’s use of an image depicting some “widely recognized CSU hedges,” which CSU claims is part of the university’s “trade dress.” Trade dress—a form of intellectual property that includes the way a product looks or is packaged—is protected in order to ensure that consumers know what product or brand they are buying. To suggest that people may not take pictures of products (or places) in order to identify the subjects of commentary would be to disallow innumerable and invaluable sources of information, including newspaper articles.
Amazingly, the letter asserts that “it is not the University’s intention to censor or inhibit the professors’ speech.” But what follows is a request that would make it impossible for faculty members to provide commentary about the university on the website: “Please direct your clients to not use CSU’s mark, name and any CSU images on the Blog ... .” The letter also demands a lengthy disclaimer to be featured prominently on the website, stating that the blog does not represent the views of CSU.
Happily, the Faculty Voice has not backed down, and is providing ample and apt commentary on the situation. Elsewhere, additional media coverage of this ham-handed attempt to suppress criticism of the university is contributing to CSU’s growing reputation for censorship.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the faculty bloggers are planning on clarifying on the website that the views expressed are their own and not that of the university, though they do not plan on using CSU’s proposed language. At the same time, the bloggers are continuing to post updates on the situation as well as commentary on other university-related topics, making clear that the faculty know their rights.
Check back to The Torch for updates.
Image: Home page of the CSU Faculty Voice blog