Under Pressure, Appalachian State Revises Licensing Policy

September 8, 2009

As The Appalachian, a student newspaper at Appalachian State University (ASU), reported last week, the Appalachian State chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has successfully intervened on behalf of students whose speech was threatened by ASU’s trademarking and licensing policy, resulting in changes to the policy to make it more compatible with principles of free speech and fair use.

ASU student groups and university departments are, in most cases, required to ask for approval from ASU’s Office of Trademarks and Licensing when producing materials using ASU’s logos or variations of the university’s name. According to the ACLU, however, ASU overstepped the parameters of its policy in denying licensing for two t-shirts, one of which read “Appalachian: The Beer & Football University,” and the other of which said “Shame on App State: Support the Workers Rights Consortium.” Neither of the shirts was intended for commercial use, and the students were not acting on behalf of any student group or university department. As The Appalachian reports:

The ACLU contacted the university over the matter, saying the T-shirt was protected under free speech, and Appalachian provided the Office of Trademarks & Licensing with too much discretion in deciding which T-shirts would be allowed.

“I understand the desire to protect the university’s image, but administrators overstepped their trademark authority and violated free expression rights,” President of the ACLU Appalachian chapter Clark C. Anderson said in a statement.

Fortunately, ASU University Attorney David Larry was quite receptive to the ACLU’s comments, and acted accordingly. Larry even conceded that the ACLU “actually researched some questions that had been troubling me for some time.”

Larry went on to clarify to The Appalachian that the policy is not meant to infringe on students’ free expression rights, saying that while students may be denied for licensing, App State cannot stop them from printing, which students can still do at an unlicensed printer. A legal disclaimer has been added to the office’s website, stating that “it is not the intent of Appalachian State’s policy to limit or prevent or to require the licensing of activity that would not infringe or dilute Appalachian State’s legal rights, e.g., the legitimate exercise of the constitutional right of free speech or trademark or copyright fair use.”

Given the zealousness with which universities protect their images, this is all rather refreshing. As Torch readers have read, FIRE was recently forced to intervene at the University of California, Los Angeles, when it threatened a former student maintaining the site ucla-weeding101.info, which it claimed was an illegal use of the university’s initials. FIRE was similarly spurred to action in 2005 when the University of California, Santa Barbara attempted to shut down a critical site called “The Dark Side of UCSB.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU continues to examine Appalachian State’s licensing policies to determine whether the requirement that student groups submit licensing applications is itself consistent with free speech. Hopefully, its observations will be met with the same good faith from Appalachian State.

Schools:  Appalachian State University