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AU President Challenges Web Site That Bears His Name

"It wasn't a full publication so much," Wetmore acknowledged. "It was more Drudge Report than Washington Post," including photos of Ladner's official residence and weekend home, which the Web site referred to as "mansions" and declared "almost as good as MTV's Cribs."

Though Wetmore still owns the domain name, he has handed off control of the site to a new generation of AU students, and it has evolved into a somewhat more traditional news publication, with stories about student volunteer projects and administrative hires. Jeff Behrens, the current editor in chief, said the site has a reliable staff of about 10 students but still struggles to keep publishing.

Benjamin Ladner says the site trades on "the goodwill" of his name. (Billy Howard)

After Wetmore, who is representing himself in the case, files his response with the Internet group, the matter will be considered by a three-person arbitration panel.

This procedure was created to provide a quick way to mediate allegations of "cybersquatting," said Wayne State University law professor Jessica Litman, an Internet law specialist, "without having to go to court and pay a lawyer."

Yet the panels can come up with quick responses only in clear-cut cases, she said, "where the registrant has no legitimate right to the name, or has registered it in bad faith, or is making money from it, or is trying to divert trade or fool people."

But the Ladner case, she said, is not so clear-cut. Some panelists, she said, may declare that Ladner has rights to shut down an address that could be confused as his, while "others may say: 'This is legitimate speech. This is absolutely protected.' "

There is also the question of whether Wetmore, who now works for a conservative leadership training organization, has used Ladner's name with commercial intent. Behrens noted that the Web site has virtually no money -- not even enough to hire a lawyer in this matter. But Ladner's attorney, Blount, notes that the site does at least attempt to get paid advertising.

And there will be the question of how much value Ladner can claim accrues to his name. According to an article in Legal Times, Ted Turner and Jerry Falwell failed to prevail with preliminary challenges because they couldn't demonstrate that their names had a worth comparable to trademarks -- because those names, despite their renown, were not associated with commercial goods.

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