Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: Ohio State University is requiring its roughly 150 alumni clubs and societies to keep mum when it comes to disparaging comments about the school, or risk losing money and other perks it provides them. For the most part, they are signing on.
The move comes two years after the school fired its marching band director because of an internal investigation that found a “sexualized culture” in the band, prompting one of its most visible alumni groups to speak out publicly against the university and offer the fired employee public relations and legal help.
The university says the band controversy isn’t connected to the alumni group changes, which it says are stemming from a process that began months before Jonathan Waters’ firing in 2014. All but a handful of clubs have signed on, Andy Gurd, the university’s chief operating officer, said in an interview with the Associated Press.
“Of course, individual members have every right to speak their minds as private citizens,” Gurd said. “But when representing the university as officers of officially sanctioned organizations, they are serving as ambassadors for Ohio State, and the charter simply requires that they do so in alignment with Ohio State values and priorities.”
Such disparagement clauses are standard in trademark agreements, and they can require users of logos and other perks to give up some free speech protections, experts said.
Still, Gary Leppla, a band alumnus and attorney for the TBDBITL Alumni Club — representing alumni of what fans know as The Best Damn Band in the Land — said he was “shocked and disappointed” when the club’s board of governors agreed last week to bring the proposal to its full membership this coming Friday.
“We might not be allowed to march, we might not be allowed to carry on, we might be disassociated with the university unless we take this loyalty oath,” Leppla said.
The group, whose members provide hundreds of public concerts each year, existed even before the university alumni association. It is independently incorporated, has its own logo and owns the “TBDBITL” trademark, Leppla said. The band itself is widely acclaimed for its intricate and inventive football halftime shows.
U.S. colleges and universities have become much more aggressive in protecting their brands. Ohio State, with one of the nation’s top athletic programs, one of the biggest student bodies and a global alumni base of nearly half a million, has more to protect than most schools — a brand running into multiple billions of dollars.
“It’s very competitive today for universities,” said Lewis Gould, a Philadelphia-based trademark attorney. “They realize they have to prize and protect the reputations they have — which they do through their brand.”
In Texas, a Baylor University lawsuit against its alumni association in 2014 alleged misuse of the university’s name and trademark. Critics called attempts to bring the association under the university “message control.” The parties settled this year, agreeing to better align their missions but allowing the association to stay independent.
Gould said a non-disparagement clause doesn’t necessarily stifle all university criticism.
“They do not have to say only positive things, in my mind. They have the right to do that under free speech,” he said. “What they can’t do is say something false or misleading.”