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Pacifica to Critics: Take Down Your Web Sites or We ll Sue

Feb. 19, 2001

Pacifica to Critics: Take Down Your Web Sites or We ll Sue

Two Web Sites Critical of Pacifica Foundation are Subject of Lawsuit Threats; First Amendment Protects Critics, Public Citizen Says

WASHINGTON, D.C. In a move that is widely viewed as an attack on First Amendment rights on the Internet, Pacifica Foundation has said it will sue to force two groups embroiled in a controversy over the radio network to dismantle Web sites critical of Pacifica.

A lawyer representing Pacifica sent letters last week to Friends of Free Speech Radio in California and WBAI Listener Network in New York, demanding that the two groups abandon the use of their domain names and relinquish all rights to those names by today, Feb. 19, or face legal action. Pacifica is claiming that the groups, which operate www.savepacifica.net and www.WBAI.net, are violating trademark laws.

Representatives of the two groups have said they will not dismantle the sites. Public Citizen, which champions First Amendment rights on the Internet, will represent the groups if Pacifica sues, as expected. A Pacifica attorney has told Public Citizen that it will indeed go to court.

“We cannot sit by idly while corporations try to silence people using illegal intimidation tactics,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said. “The law is quite clear about First Amendment rights, which apply on the Internet as much as in traditional forms of print.”

The controversy stems from a conflict between Pacifica s management and station employees and members over the network s future. Management is viewed as seeking to sacrifice programming for profits, while employees and many community activists say they don t want to give up the progressive programming for which Pacifica is noted.

In its Feb. 14 letters, Pacifica Foundation attorney Tanya Vanderbilt, of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. in Washington, D.C., claims that the use of the Web site domain names is a trademark infringement, could confuse people who go to the Web to look for Pacifica s site and restricts Pacifica from conducting business on the Internet under its own name.

But Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group who has represented people in several similar cases, said Pacifica s threats would not hold up in court. Trademark infringement occurs when a company s name is used in a misleading way to profit from consumer confusion about whether the company has sponsored the message, he said. This clearly didn t apply in this case, because both sites are clearly non-commercial, he said.

“The First Amendment fully supports the kind of speech that is posted on these Web sites,” Levy said. “It s unbelievable that Pacifica has to resort to bullying tactics, rather than addressing the internal problems that have led to this dissension.”

Said Friends of Free Speech Radio member Robbie Osman, “Savepacifica.net and wbai.net are legal and valuable Web sites. They offer information about the actions of the present Pacifica board. They make no pretense to being anything else.” He added that “Pacifica historically has defended free expression and encouraged fair and open debate. We must not allow it to descend into thuggishness and censorship.”

Patty Heffley of WBAI Listener network said, “Pacifica is trying to stifle free speech on their own broadcast network and now in some Orwellian fashion they are trying to silence those who listen as well.”

In a similar recent case, Public Citizen represented an airline passenger who was so upset about how Alitalia handled his lost luggage complaint that he launched a Web site entitled www.alitaliasucks.com. The airline sued for trademark infringement, among other things, but dropped the suit shortly after a judge demanded that a top company official, such as the president, come to court to explain why the company brought the case.