The hedge police: Censorship at Chicago State University



Chicago State University (CSU) administrators have sent another letter attempting to shut down or censor the CSU Faculty Voice blog. In November, AAUP VP Hank Reichman called CSU’s earlier letter to the blog “a thuggish effort to bully and frighten, with no legal or moral justification.”

This new letter is even worse, and clear evidence that the CSU administration felt no shame about its earlier attack on freedom of speech.

Donald Levine, a lawyer hired by CSU to go after the blog, writes in his Jan. 3, 2014 letter to the blog’s lawyer, “Please direct your clients to not use CSU’s,[sic] mark, name and any CSU images on the Blog…” Yes, you read that right: CSU is declaring that trademark law allows it to ban any pictures of its campus or any mention of the CSU name from any website. Needless to say, it’s a little difficult to criticize the CSU administration if the term “CSU” is banned.

Now, it’s possible that CSU’s lawyer is an idiot and didn’t actually intend to proclaim that trademark law allows CSU to ban the use of the university’s name or its abbreviation or pictures of it in any online or print articles about it. But it’s unclear exactly where this vast demand for censorship ends.

Levine claims that the photograph at the front of the blog is one of a “distinctive” part of campus with “the widely recognized CSU hedges—which constitutes an element of CSU’s trade dress.” That’s lawyer talk for claiming that no one is allowed to post photos of CSU’s hedges. I’m not aware of any other college campus that has ever tried to ban pictures of hedges.

Levine, who mentions the hedges at least three times in his letter, argues that the hedges are “creating the impression that the blog has been endorsed or sanctioned by the university.” Really? Those are mighty powerful hedges. A photograph where the word “Chicago” has been crossed off and replaced with “crony,” and upon which the words “Where we hire our friends” have been added is proof that a blog is endorsed by CSU? Unless Levine thinks that cronyism and the hiring of friends are endorsed and sanctioned by the university, it’s hard to believe how anyone with a brain could imagine that this blog is supported by CSU, particularly if you read the blog and its criticisms of CSU administrators along with the frequent posts about the efforts of CSU to shut down the blog.

Levine makes some other bizarre allegations in his latest letter, repeatedly claiming that the blog “may give the impression that the professors speak as the voice of the CSU faculty as a whole.” I searched on the blog for the phrases “whole CSU faculty” and “CSU faculty as a whole” and “entire CSU faculty” and could not find any examples (except for this lawyer’s letter). Levine offers no case where anyone on the CSU Faculty Voice blog claimed to be speaking for the entire faculty. The entire allegation seems to be a total fabrication. Even if the CSU Faculty Voice did falsely claim to be the voice of the whole faculty, that would not be a violation of trademark law, especially since in my search of the Chicago State University trademarks, I found no evidence that CSU actually owns the trademark to “CSU” and certainly not to “CSU faculty.”

Think of what CSU is doing as trimming the hedges of free speech. Just chop a bit off the top, and if the critics don’t learn their lesson, well, there’s a lawyer with a hedge trimmer ready to make some more severe cuts. CSU claims that they’re not demanding censorship, even though they have demanded that the blog be shut down and have now asserted the right to shut down any website they want to that mentions CSU.

Apparently, CSU is trying to market itself as the Lord Voldemort of higher education, where no one dare speak its name. You-Know-Who is engaging in a campaign of harassment and intimidation. If the CSU administration really is worried about protecting its reputation in search engines, perhaps it should avoid looking like a bunch of incompetent idiots trying to suppress intellectual freedom by threatening frivolous litigation against faculty critics.