In November, Chicago State University administrators demanded the shutdown of a blog that a group of faculty members had created to criticize the institution. The site’s creator made changes to distance the blog from the university, but now Chicago State officials say the blog is engaging in copyright infringement and warn that they will take legal action if a disclaimer is not put up.
The Crony State Faculty Voice bloggers first experienced backlash from the administration last November, said the creator of the blog, Phillip Beverly, an associate professor of political science at the university. The website had alleged that the university falsified job applications and resumes, he said.
"We post whatever is true," he said. "As academics, we don’t like to get it wrong; we won’t put out something that we know is false."
The blog was under the radar until that Nov. 6 post. Shortly after publishing it, on Nov. 11, Beverly received a cease-and-desist letter saying the blog infringed on the university’s trademark.
“At any university, company or organization, they all have an obligation to protect their trademark," said Tom Wogan, Chicago State’s public relations director.
Wogan said Chicago State has filed trademarks on Chicago State University’s block letter font, the university seal and the cougar, its athletic symbol.
The bloggers filed a Freedom of Information Act in November requesting the trademark numbers; the document they received revealed that the university didn’t file for federal trademarks until Nov. 14, three days after the letter was sent to Beverly. Two are pending and one is void because it didn’t meet the minimum filing date in time. (Note: This article has been updated to reflect new information.)
Last year, in response to the first letter, the bloggers changed the name from “Chicago State University Faculty Voice“ to “Crony State University Faculty Voice.”
The university first had an issue with the use of Chicago State University in the blog’s title; a second letter is requesting that the image of the hedges on the blog’s homepage be removed because it could lead people into thinking it has been authorized and approved by university administrators. The hedges are on the homepage of the university’s admissions office. There isn’t a trademark on the hedges, but the image is very similar to CSU’s, which could potentially mislead people, said Wogan.
The recent letter also addressed the blog’s URL.
"It continues to use the confusing www.csufacultyvoice.blogspot.com URL, which gives Internet readers searching for information about CSU -- including prospective students -- the impression that the faculty as a whole has approved the site," the letter said.
Administrators aren’t asking the bloggers to change the URL because CSU is a common acronym. They proposed specific language for the disclaimer and want the bloggers to use it. This will prevent site visitors from believing that Chicago State authorized the blog or that it represents the opinion of all 300 faculty members, Wogan said.
"If you can’t look at our site and see we’re not affiliated with the university, you probably have the intelligence of a small bird," Beverly said.
There are eight faculty bloggers, and the group attempted to agree on the disclaimer’s language last week, but a decision was postponed because of a lack of consensus among the members, Beverly said.
"We want to be very thoughtful and not be impetuous" about the disclaimer’s language, he said. The bloggers hope to post a disclaimer this week.
The blog‘s lawyer sees the university‘s complaint as a way to stop the writers from expressing their views.
"I think the university is using whatever limited means they have at their disposal to silence the faculty members," said Wesley Johnson.
He also added that the bloggers’ use of the CSU acronym and image should be considered fair use.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education defended the Chicago State bloggers in a recent post, arguing that the blog would not be confused with the university's website.
Jacob H. Rooksby, a professor at Duquesne School of Law, agreed with Johnson that the bloggers should be protected by fair use. The blog is far from misleading, he said.
"There’s no confusion," he said. "It’s clear from looking at the blog that these are faculty speakers who are just expressing their issues with the university."
Rooksby said he considers the Chicago State blog issue to be part of a current trend of institutions using trademarks or alleged trademarks to try to "bully" those who use language they don’t like.
Beverly said the bloggers hope to avoid a trip to court, but that if they end up there, they will win.
"Do we want to go to court? No, not really, it’s a fairly lengthy process and doesn’t really accomplish much," he said.