Student group forbidden from using 'Trump' by Penn State
Penn State University is refusing to allow students to form a club using the name “Trump,” citing dubious legal concerns as justification.
Christopher Baker, director of communications for the unofficial “We Are For Trump” organization, told Campus Reform that Penn State denied recognition to the group under its originally-proposed name because Donald Trump’s name is trademarked, unlike the names of other candidates.
Emails from an employee of the Office of Student Affairs to “We Are For Trump,” as well as written confirmation from a writer and editor for Penn State’s News and Media Relations department, support the veracity of that account.
Yet Dr. Matthew Jackson, who teaches communications, Internet, and copyright law at Penn State, told Campus Reform that to the best of his knowledge, the name “We Are For Trump” would “not violate trademark or any other law.”
According to Penn State’s website, Jackson’s expertise includes copyright law, intellectual property, communications law, and free speech. He is also the head of the Telecommunications Department.
Trump is allowed to trademark his name for business purposes, and has done so extensively, but courts have allowed for political speech as long as there is no consumer confusion, Jackson explained, saying, “the First Amendment definitely allows the use of a candidate's name—though you cannot create a trademark with a candidate's name without the candidate's permission.”
Were the group to use any Trump or Penn State logos, the answer would change, he noted, but said, “I am confident that the group name ‘We are for Trump’ does not violate trademark law.”
Jackson emphasized that he is referring specifically to trademark law and not any other reasons why Penn State might choose to not allow a group to use the name.
Baker told Campus Reform that the group’s troubles began this past spring, when several students began working to establish a “Students for Trump” group, which was granted temporary status for two weeks at the end of the semester, but could not secure permanent recognition due to the lack of a faculty advisor.
“The current members on campus during summer, which included the newly elected chairman and I, had to complete all the tasks to become an ‘official’ club,” Baker said, adding that during the process they decided to change the club’s name to “We Are for Trump” (a play on the “We Are Penn State” chant) in order to maintain independence from the national “Students for Trump” organization.
After fulfilling the necessary prerequisites, Baker said that the students went to Student Affairs for approval, and were informed that while “Students for Trump” would be acceptable, use of “We Are” in the new name would necessitate a university review.
Baker was told that the issue with the name was that “We Are” is a Penn State trademark; however, Baker said the phrase is not unique to Penn State and is used for other organizations.
Ben Manning, a writer and editor in Penn State News and Media Relations, told Campus Reform that because “We Are” is closely associated with the university, school officials were concerned that it would give the appearance that Penn State, as a whole, was endorsing Trump, when in reality the school stays politically neutral.
Jackson, however, argued that although “We Are” is likely trademarked by Penn State, it would also constitute political speech in this context, which would mean it is not in violation of trademark infringement.
“A separate issue is whether the group violates university rules for an official student group,” Jackson said. “But Penn State's policy says it allows student organizations in support of political candidates, so I don't see anything in Penn State's policy to prohibit this group from forming.”
After several weeks and several unproductive email exchanges, Baker recounted that the group was finally told that it would need explicit approval from the Trump campaign in order to use the name “Trump,” prompting the students to change their name once again, this time adopting the moniker “Bull-Moose Party.”
There is a “Students for Hillary” club on campus, according Penn State’s student organization directory, but Manning told Campus Reform that none of the candidates have their names trademarked.
“In fact, Mr. Trump has filed 318 trademark applications around the word ‘Trump,’” Manning said.
Baker said this does not matter, telling Campus Reform that while he recognizes the distinction, he nonetheless questions whether “Trump” as a private individual extends to “Trump” as a public servant. Regardless, he said, “necessary endorsement is still legally questionable because our usage of a trademarked word is covered by ‘Nominative Fair Use,’ as enunciated by the 9th Circuit.”
Jackson affirmed that a student club using this name “could be considered a fair use, specifically a nominative fair use” because the group has “Trump” in the name merely to indicate which candidate it is supporting for president.
Baker noted that the group unofficially continued to refer to itself as “We Are For Trump” while obtaining official recognition from PSU as the “Bull-Moose Party,” but by that point, it was too late to register for a table at the student involvement fair.
After not receiving an email from the university regarding the name for several weeks, an employee with whom Baker had been in contact emailed the president of the club, Dmitri Loutsik, about the club’s name. She did not answer Baker’s previous questions, but instead asked for confirmation that they are not using the name “Trump,” because she had seen it used in articles in The Daily Collegian, PSU’s newspaper.
“We have previously reached out, and have so far been ignored, as to the official statement as to why we cannot use We Are for Trump, if we were to be using it,” Loutsik responded.
The employee responded that the club had not been ignored, but that the student who came to her office was told they could not use “Trump” because the name is heavily trademarked, and would therefore require documented permission from the national campaign.
When Baker sent a follow-up email, he received a similar response.
Manning confirmed that the students were told verbally, and then in writing on August 26 and 29, that they needed permission from the national campaign to use the name “Trump.”
Baker complained that not having the word “Trump” in the name has been detrimental to the group.
“Students for Trump already existed in the spring without an endorsement, and so did Students for Bernie,” Baker told Campus Reform. “We were told that Students for Trump was OK until the ‘We Are’ debacle, which was clearly a sham.
“Also, there are hundreds if not thousands of ‘Trump’ groups around the nation, which use his name Trump, and of those I have spoken to, none of them received an endorsement,” he continued, adding, “I spoke to campaign staffers and they informed us they could not provide an endorsement.”
The university, however, contends that denying recognition to the Trump group is in the best interest of the students.
“To protect both the university and students, we cannot recognize a student group that is infringing on the legal rights of another individual or entity,” Manning told Campus Reform. "Absent permission from Mr. Trump, we declined to recognize [a] student organization with the Trump name, but they are recognized under the alternate name they selected.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to an email from Campus Reform in time for publication.
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