Following a complaint and threat of litigation from a civil liberties group, the University of California has chosen not to pursue a legal battle against a website critical of UCSB.
In November of 2004, the university asked James Baron, the father of a former UCSB student, to remove the letters “UCSB” from his website, thedarksideofucsb.com. UCSB officials said Baron’s use of the trademark violates a section of the California Education Code, and visitors could confuse the site with a campus-affiliated entity. On behalf of Baron, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter to Chancellor Henry Yang dated Jan. 31 that said the university’s request infringes upon Baron’s First Amendment rights, and the civil liberties group “is committed to using all of its media, legal and other resources to protect Mr. Baron’s right of free expression.”
UC lawyers responded to FIRE’s letter on Feb. 1. David Birnbaum, counsel to the University, said in a letter that UCSB does not intend to pursue the matter any further.
“As it happens, those responsible for this matter concluded prior to the receipt of your letter that the website in question, www.thedarksideofucsb.com, does not at this time pose a potential for confusion that the site is affiliated with the campus…” Birnbaum wrote.
The website refers to UCSB as a place where “underage and excessive drinking, drugs, lying, cheating, stealing, rape, sexual assault, violence and promiscuity are not considered problems.”
Baron said Sunday that he was disappointed the University did not sue him for the alleged trademark infringement.
“We welcome the suits from UCSB or UC on either their copyright infringement or upon the education code,” he said. “Clearly, these guys aren’t that dumb. They’re not going to sue us … they just order you to stop it or they’re going to press criminal charges against you. It’s the most egregious form of suppression of free speech in this country.”
UCSB officials said Baron was in violation of Section 92000 of the California Education Code, which requires an organization to obtain permission from UC before using one of its trademarks.
Baron said he thinks UC backed away from litigation in order to avoid bad publicity.
“I’ll take counselor Birnbaum on his word that the decision had been made, but I don’t believe for a minute that they didn’t accelerate the process to attempt to eliminate the publicity…” he said. “They knew about us for months, and that it occurred on the exact same day is unusual.”
After his experience, Baron said thedarksideofucsb.com is willing to pay the legal fees of anyone critical of UCSB or other UC schools and whose freedom of speech is being suppressed.
“We’ve put a substantial amount of money away and we will pay the legal fees,” he said. “Anyone that has problems with UCSB or UC, we will pay the legal fees for them and make sure they are given representation. We will not allow the University to squelch free speech any longer.”
In its 1,800-word letter, FIRE said UCSB’s position barring Baron from using the letters “UCSB” in the URL lacks any legal or moral justification.
“As a public university and an agency of the government of the State of California, UCSB may not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of Mr. Baron to speak out about what he sees as a destructive culture for students at UCSB,” the letter said.
FIRE said the university’s claim that the letters “UCSB” in the URL could mislead visitors lacks credibility, and the average person would not associate the university with a site called “The Dark Side of UCSB.”
“Is UCSB prepared to argue that a reasonable person would believe that a website called thedarksideofpresidentbush.com would be an official website of President Bush, or that thedarksideofmicrosoft.com would be a site supported by Microsoft?” the letter said.
Baron’s website also carries a disclaimer, which says it is supported by UCSB students, former students, parents and community members and is not affiliated or supported by the University of California or UCSB. FIRE said it would be extremely unusual for a person viewing all of the indicators on the website to mistake thedarksideofucsb.com for an official UCSB website.
“A more plausible explanation for UCSB’s actions is that the university’s stated rationale for attempting to force Mr. Baron to remove the letters ‘ucsb’ from his website serves as subterfuge for its effort to squelch Mr. Baron’s expression,” FIRE said.
Birnbaum said in his letter that the content of Baron’s website had nothing to do with the university’s request.
“Misuse of the campus name occurs fairly regularly, in circumstances that do create a potential for confusion, and the campus objects to such misuse when it occurs, regardless of any political or other viewpoints involved,” Birnbaum wrote.