Last month, an unofficial blog set up by graduate students at USC’s Roski School of Art was quietly taken down. At first they thought it was a technical error, but the hosting platform Tumblr recently notified them that they had been contacted by an attorney from the University of Southern California (USC), but could not provide additional information without a subpoena.
The Tumblr blog was started by graduate students in December of 2012, both as a way to post information and event listings, and as “as a means for a collective voice separate from that of the university at large, in light of its shifting tone, ” said Alli Miller who received her MFA from Roski this past spring. She is referring in part to the departure of former Roski Dean Rochelle Steiner in fall of 2012. In response to her absence, a number of students created a project called “Collective Dean, ” which included videos posted on the tumblr.
“We started Collective Dean, partly because we felt there was this hole, and we thought we should fill it with exactly the kind of authority figure we would want to have, ” said Becket Flannery, who graduated in 2014. “The current dean, Dean Muhl, was appointed interim dean very quickly, and as we got to know her, we started to tailor some of the pieces in a way that might represent our interest better, ” Flannery told me. The students, under the Collective Dean moniker, wrote a letter to their faculty in the spring of 2013. “This was forwarded to Erica Muhl and she called us all in for a meeting where she said that we were not qualified to be the dean, which I thought was an incredible interpretation of this project, as if we were attempting a coup, ” Flannery said.
As tensions between the students and the Dean heated up, especially surrounding the mass drop out of the #USC7 earlier this year, “the Tumblr turned into a hosting site for our many open letters and support comments from our petition to remove Dean Muhl, ” said Jacinto Astiazarán who graduated in 2015. He sees the timing of the site’s deletion as directly related to these recent conflicts. “Beyond it being a retaliative move, it was a strategic attempt at wiping those statements off the web.”
So was the USC administration justified in demanding the site’s removal? “The USCMFA Tumblr page was a trademark infringement and created the impression it was an official account from USC Roski, ” reads a statement sent from the Roski administration to Hyperallergic. “The program name and graduate building address appeared clearly on the page at all times.” Although the school’s name and address appear in very small print on the bottom of the site, it’s not surprising that students wishing to publicize their school events would want people to know where they were being held.
According to visual artist and writer Nicole Killian, who has written on internet structures and aesthetics, USC’s argument doesn’t hold up. “It seems that whoever wanted to have it shut down knew who had started it, and could prove on behalf of USC or the dean or whoever that it was not an … [official] USC site, ” she told Hyperallergic via email. “This is quite ridiculous to me just based on the fact of how Tumblr functions as a platform — it’s an amorphic fluctuating body of likes and reblogs without credits a lot of times. In the age of Google image search you can of course find where an image is from for the most part. But here, it wasn’t the images that were the problems — it was the use of the name. If it wasn’t infringing on brand standards of USC I don’t understand on what ground it could be shut down for. With branding, a cease and desist comes along if you are using copyright material for capital. Tumblr is essentially a short form blog and the USC one was just a document of student life — not the actual school.”
Former professor A.L. Steiner, who left this past spring, questioned the school’s motivation. “It’s mind-boggling why they’d bother harassing the MFA students by doing this and potentially getting more bad press and legal questioning of their intentions, ” she said via email. “Why would they put themselves in this position of shutting down a student-run tumblr & defying the basic tenets of academic freedom?”
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