American University President Benjamin Ladner is challenging a student-run news Web site that uses his name in its address and criticizes his administration.
The site, BenLadner.com, was launched in December 2001 as an outlet for former AU student Ben Wetmore’s frustrations with Ladner and other university officials. Last month, Ladner filed a complaint with the National Arbitration Forum, which functions as an alternative to a legal court, in an effort to reclaim the Web domain bearing his name.
After a failed attempt at starting a print publication, Wetmore established the site to voice his discontent with the condition of the university. Wetmore said he singled out Ladner’s name because “everything had to be the result of one man’s polices, one man’s decisions.”
Wetmore also cited Ladner’s “detached” style and lack of visibility as motivation for creating the site.
“We were trying to fill a niche on campus … a way to be the Ben Ladner that no one ever had,” said Wetmore, who described Ladner as “the man behind the curtain.”
The site, which Wetmore said draws about 400 hits per day from the AU community, has since shifted its focus to campus news and student life but remains critical of Ladner and AU’s policies. About 10 student writers regularly contribute to what the site described as “a virtual town square.”
“We are well-regarded and well-read,” said Ed O’Keefe, a former editor-in-chief of the site, who added that AU faculty and staff also visit the online newsletter.
In his complaint , Ladner claims that the site capitalizes on his status as a well-known figure in academia in order to “intentionally divert Internet users” by “causing initial interest confusion.”
“The issue here is someone taking President Ladner’s name,” AU Media Relations Director Todd Sedmak said. “We believe that that name belongs to President Ladner.”
Sedmak also said that AU students and parents attempting to contact Ladner might be mistakenly led to believe that BenLadner.com is the official site of the AU President. Sedmak said he was aware that the site includes a disclaimer, which reads, “This site is not supported or endorsed by Benjamin Ladner,” but argued that is not sufficient in quelling the confusion.
Ladner was unavailable for comment for this story, and David Taylor, his chief of staff, declined to comment.
Sedmak said university officials have regularly monitored the site “since it was formed,” but that President Ladner himself has never personally visited the site.
“It is not an issue regarding content,” Sedmak said.
Ladner also asserts in his complaint that Wetmore is drawing advertisers and commercial profit through the use of Ladner’s “trademark” name, a charge that Wetmore denies.
“I haven’t made a dime off of this Web site,” said Wetmore, who cited a net loss of $500 since the site was founded.
O’Keefe also said he has made “no money at all” off the site and described staff efforts as “blood, sweat and tears,” noting that any revenue generated by ads goes back into meeting domain name and hosting costs.
Ladner’s complaint and Wetmore’s response are being reviewed by a three-judge panel through the NAF, which describes itself as “an international organization for handling disputes.”
“(NAF) is more efficient and cheaper than traditional litigation,” said Ryan Kaatz, NAF’s manager of domain dispute resolution. He added that NAF traditionally resolves disputes in two months versus an average of two years in traditional court.
Kaatz also noted that in place of legal arguments, Ladner will need to prove that Wetmore broke the policies of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that sets regulations regarding the fair use of trademarks on the Internet. Ladner must first establish that his name is well known enough to be a trademark and prove that Wetmore used the “trademark” for commercial gain or to purposefully tarnish Ladner’s name.