Last week the University of California at Santa Barbara capitulated in its attempt to force the owner of a site called thedarksideofucsb.com to remove the initials “UCSB” on its site. This is a remarkable case for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it highlights the trend of using intellectual property law as a tool for silencing criticism. Obviously, it would be hard to criticize an organization or institution if you couldn’t say its name! “Man, I think BLANK is corrupt. You know who I mean by BLANK, correct?” just isn’t a very effective way to dissent.
One thing that unites this case with others in FIRE’s history is UCSB’s attempts to obfuscate its blameworthiness. In UCSB’s letter to FIRE, it claims that despite doing nothing for two months after accusing James Baron, the originator of the site, of a misdemeanor for using the UCSB name, UCSB just happened to send its letter capitulating the very same day it received our letter, but before it got our letter. Now, this, of course, sounds pretty fishy to begin with, but Baron sent us a copy of the envelope UCSB sent to him. We sent our letter to UCSB’s chancellor at 1:16 p.m. PT on January 31. The letter to Baron is postmarked February 1. If UCSB really did send the letter before receiving ours, the letter wouldn’t have been postmarked the following day.
Also, the letter sent to Baron actually opens by saying that UCSB is pleased with changes he made to his website. He has no idea what changes UCSB is talking about and can only speculate that this was another attempt to cover for UCSB’s actions. UCSB is trying to pretend: (1) it came to the same conclusion as FIRE on its own and had already done the right thing; and (2) its letter was prompted by some (currently unknown) action on James’ part.
So why am I quibbling about a minor attempt at deception by UCSB? As I often say in speeches, it is important to point out that college administrators “are hardly Philosopher Kings.” Supporters of speech restrictions on campus often seem to believe that somehow college administrators are more enlightened and more capable of restricting speech than, for example, the federal government would be, and therefore attempts to restrict speech on campus are somehow more tolerable than other attempts by the government. What I mean by the Philosopher King crack is that time and time again, college administrators show themselves as no less flawed and no less prone to abuses of power than any other person in a position of power.
Now, to be clear, I have been very pleased in recent years with FIRE’s increased cooperation with groups such as the Association for Student Judicial Affairs. But it is important for FIRE, as a watchdog group, to point out that the reason for not giving the government too much power over our lives is the same for college administrators: people aren’t perfect, and where there is power, there will be abuses.
FIRE has seen case after case in which a university has engaged in dishonest attempts to obscure its actions. Occidental College and its university counsel, Sandra Cooper, have earned the dubious distinction of waging the most dishonest attempt to misrepresent the facts of a free speech case in my career. But other schools, including Gonzaga University, Shippensburg University, American University, and Ithaca College (which later tried to deny that an incident Harvey and I describe in our Chronicle of Higher Education article ever happened), as well as numerous others, also engaged in questionable attempts to obscure the facts of incidents they had been involved with.
The people who administer justice at colleges are only human, and there are some powers humans have a pretty bad track record at managing. Regulating speech without abuse or denying the basic rights of citizens would be a challenge for even the greatest Philosopher King, and I think it is best for everyone that we mere mortals do our best to avoid taking on such powers in the first place.