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AU President Loses Web Site Challenge

Eponymous Page Protected by Free Speech Rights, Group Finds

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page B02

American University President Benjamin Ladner has lost his bid to stop a former student from using Ladner's name in a Web site devoted to criticism and commentary about the Northwest Washington school.

An Internet arbitration group issued an opinion last week that the Web site, www.benladner.com, is being used for "bona fide, noncommercial criticism" of the university administration under Ladner and that the use of the domain name is protected by the First Amendment.

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Ben Wetmore, then a student at the university, paid $20 in late 2001 to reserve the benladner.com address through a Yahoo domain register. The site was inspired by his friends' complaints about life at the university, particularly several tuition increases, and Ladner draws the brunt of the criticism.

Ladner's attorney, Sherri N. Blount, filed a complaint in July with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a nonprofit organization set up to resolve disputes over rights to particular addresses. The group has been used by major corporations and celebrities to shut down Web sites that try to exploit business trademarks or famous names.

Blount argued that visitors to Wetmore's site mistake it for the official Web site of the university leader. She said that Wetmore was exploiting Ladner's well-known name and standing in the education field for commercial purposes.

But the arbitration panel, while describing Ladner as a noted educator and scholar who has published and spoken widely, said the AU president's name did not have trademark protection. Nor, the panel found, was the domain name being used in bad faith or for commercial gain.

David Taylor, Ladner's chief of staff, said yesterday that the university was "disappointed in the outcome" of its challenge to the use of its president's name. The panel's decision is not legally binding; Taylor said Ladner is reviewing options in terms of additional action.

"The university's position is . . . that it is misleading and confusing to use someone's name inappropriately to draw attention and Web traffic to a site that is not connected to that person," Taylor said.

Wetmore, a 23-year-old Texas native who has since graduated, said he was pleased with the decision.

"They found [Ladner] had no protectable rights to his name that overrode our rights to legitimate free speech," said Wetmore, who works for the Arlington-based Leadership Institute, where his job is to help start campus newspapers.

Jeff Behrens, 22, the editor of the site, who has taken a semester off from his studies, said the Web site name has symbolic importance to students on the campus.

"The question we've always asked the university president is: Do you have a problem with us using the name or do you have a problem with the content?" Behrens said. "If it's a problem with the name, why did he wait almost three years to decide to pursue this?"

Behrens said he is meeting today with the dean of students "to get a better idea of where the university stands" now that Ladner's claim has been rejected. He said he asked for the meeting to see what the university's role has been in Ladner's Web site challenge.

"It would be kind of outrageous if he is using student money for this," Behrens said.

Taylor said the university counsel's office assisted Ladner in filing his complaint with the Internet arbitration group but that he did not know how much it cost.

"He's been president for 10 years," he said. "We regard it as an institutional issue."

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