RMU attempts to censor campus journalists, bans Sentry Media writers from the Mythbuster
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
The university alleges trademark infringement and threatens "further action from the university"
by Julian Gregorio
In a double whammy against campus free speech, Robert Morris University administrators both legally threatened The Moon Mythbuster and banned writers for RMU Sentry Media, the campus’s mainstream news organization, from writing for the Mythbuster. The Moon Mythbuster is the only news site run by RMU students that does not accept funding from the university, and its editors support campus free speech.
Communications professor Dr. Tim Jones, who is the faculty director of RMU's Academic Media Center, emailed all Sentry editors as well as the Mythbuster Wednesday night to demand on behalf of the university that “all contact” between Sentry writers and the Mythbuster “must stop now.” He also alleged trademark infringement against RMU as well as Discovery Channel’s popular television show, “Mythbusters.”
The move threatens to chill open inquiry on campus and limit mainstream journalists from writing for alternative outlets, because the mainstream RMU Sentry Media accepts funding from the school.
Robert Morris is a private university, but it promises to uphold free expression. The school takes federal funding, and education experts like Inside Higher Ed and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) say accepting money binds even private schools to comply with free inquiry standards.
President Trump in 2019 also signed an executive order that doubles down on legally requiring schools that receive federal funding to comply with federal free speech laws.
But the university's crackdown on Wednesday brought its free speech commitment into question.
“I must make clear that, as currently conceived, The MoonMythbuster [sic] can have no relationship (formal or informal) with programs or student activities in the AMC, including Sentry Media,” Dr. Jones said in the email. AMC stands for Academic Media Center.
“To protect you as students I must ask that no university resources - including AMC computers and the Sentry News room itself - be used for efforts related to administration or content of The MoonMythbuster [sic],” he said.
Dr. Jones added, “all contact between Sentry Media and The MoonMythbuster [sic] must stop now.”
But the university’s Student Life website claims the school is a bastion for free speech.
“The free exchange of ideas should challenge our community’s minds,” the website reads. “Some ideas, and the means in which they are expressed, might make us uncomfortable. That discomfort is a crucible that serves to mold stronger critical thinkers and orators.”
The Moon Mythbuster website complied with the university’s demand to remove the phrase “RMU’s irreverent news site” from its front page and replaced it with the phrase “Moon Twp’s irreverent student news site," referencing the Pittsburgh suburb. The publication was founded in part to ensure the school could not exercise editorial control, and its About Us page has also been updated to more explicitly disassociate from the university.
Brooks Morgan, an RMU student, questioned the university’s handling of the situation and said he is against the Sentry writers’ ban.
“That’s nuts,” he said. “It seems hypocritical.”
“I’ve honestly learned a lot from a number of the articles” that the Mythbuster publishes, specifically the one that breaks down professors' mostly Democratic political donations, Mr. Morgan said. Plus, he enjoys the site's satire and humor sections.
“I’m interested in funny writing about what’s going on on campus,” and “I get excited to read the news when it’s presented that way,” he said.
Some RMU Sentry Media writers expressed concern about the email on Wednesday. One Sentry writer, who talked on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, said they felt the university might fire them if they decided to write for the Mythbuster. The Mythbuster asked Dr. Jones whether writers would be threatened with termination, but he had not responded at time of publication.
Jonathan Potts, RMU vice president of public relations and marketing, later downplayed the apparent ban, saying "no student is forbidden from working for your publication, and the Robert Morris University administration has no ability to 'fire' students who work on RMU Sentry Media," appearing to walk back the language in Dr. Jones's original email. " He also said the university has "no intention" to prevent student journalists from "expressing your views."
But he doubled down on the Discovery infringement accusation, saying it is "aggressively defended" and therefore it is in the university's best interest "that no one confuse the Moon Mythbuster with an official publication of the university or its students."
The email that contained the apparent Sentry writers’ ban and the infringement allegation said the website’s name “is a fairly clear trademark infringement against Discovery.” However, Discovery specifically trademarks the television show and related products, including “on-going television programs in the field of general entertainment, popular culture and/or experiments to test popular beliefs, urban legends and misconceptions,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. The Cambridge dictionary shows that the word "myth-busting" is in common use.
Mr. Morgan said that while he’s not a lawyer, the Discovery infringement accusation seems unfounded. He said the school should uphold free speech and that he’ll be following how this story turns out.
Update: The original version of this story referred to Dr. Tim Jones as RMU Sentry Media's faculty advisor. In fact, his title is Director of Academic Media Center.