May 10, 2001
Pacifica Backs Off Threat to Sue; Critics Can Keep Web Sites
Pacifica Foundation Had Threatened to Sue to Force Groups
To Take Down Sites Until Public Citizen Intervened
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In what is a point on the scoreboard for First Amendment rights, Pacifica Foundation has decided against suing to force three groups to dismantle Web sites critical of Pacifica.
The Foundation in February threatened to sue the groups, with whom it is embroiled in a controversy over the radio network. The Foundation demanded that Friends of Free Speech Radio in California, WBAI Listener Network in New York and the Free WPFW group in Washington, D.C., abandon the use of their domain names and relinquish the rights to those names by Feb. 19 or face legal action. In response, Public Citizen, which champions free speech rights on the Internet, announced it would represent the groups if Pacifica sued.
In a recent phone conversation, though, an attorney for Pacifica told Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Paul Alan Levy that Pacific had decided not to sue. Levy today sent the attorney, Tanya Vanderbilt, of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. in Washington, D.C., a letter confirming the conversation.
“Companies are starting to learn that they can’t bring these cases, because they’re going to lose,” Levy said. “The message is slowly getting out that free speech rights on the Internet are sacrosanct.”
The creators of the Web sites (savepacifica.net, wbai.net and freewpfw.org) are embroiled in a controversy stemming from a conflict between Pacifica’s management and station employees and members over the network’s future. Pacifica had claimed that the use of the Web site domain names was a trademark infringement and could confuse people searching the Web for Pacifica’s site. The foundation also claimed that the Web sites restricted Pacifica from conducting business on the Internet under its own name.
Those claims are baseless, Levy said. Trademark infringement occurs when a company’s name is used in a misleading way to profit from consumer confusion, which is not the case here. Also, the First Amendment protects the kind of speech posted on the Web sites, he said.
“Pacifica threatened to bring this suit because it wanted to burden its critics with the time and expense of preparing a legal defense,” said Robbie Osman, member of Friends of Free Speech Radio. “I would have hoped that before the Foundation threatened to sue, someone in the Pacific national office might have remembered that promoting fair and open debate has been at the very heart of Pacifica’s mission since it was founded. By threatening this baseless suit, the Foundation has proved the most damning charge their critics have made against them.”
Added Patty Heffley of WBAI Listener Network, “After observing the Pacifica Foundation up close, any positive actions they take must be viewed with suspicion. The good news here is that Pacifica isn’t going to squander the listeners’ money on an unwarranted suit.”