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Image over ideas

Alex Christensen | Op-Ed Submission

I created Wash. U. Photo Captions. I woke up every morning and made a fake caption for the picture on the WUSTL homepage. Some were funny, some weren’t. Some were insightful, some were just silly. Either way, Wash. U. felt it was necessary to file a copyright infringement claim and shut the site down (for now). My site criticized the University and Public Affairs and did not portray their “preferred” image of the University. But in shutting it down, Wash. U. reinforced one of the recurring topics of my little parody site: The University is tremendously insecure with itself. This inferiority complex led its legal team to send a copyright infringement takedown request for a site that at its peak was viewed about 1,000 times per day—mostly just on Wash. U.’s campus. One thousand hits is really not much—there must be dozens of websites with cute pictures of farm animals that get more traffic. But what’s most disturbing about how the University responded is that, in doing so, the University entirely undermined its own mission: to foster the free transmission of knowledge and information, as well as to encourage “bold, independent and creative thinkers.” They’ve chosen image over ideas, and that’s very scary to hear from your soon-to-be alma mater.

I can’t be adamant enough in saying that Wash. U. is a wonderful place to live and learn. We all mature a great deal in our four years here, and much of that is due to the unique atmosphere at the Danforth Campus. We are surrounded by intellectual students willing to engage each other on substantive issues and tremendous faculty whose passion is to contribute to our knowledge and understanding. But because of that No. 13 next to our name in U.S. News & World Report, and the fact that many of us still have to explain the school’s location to our family friends back home, many at the University are insecure. Sure, Wash. U. isn’t as highly valued or as well known as it should be, but it is still a damn great school.

But there are elements in the University that seem to be preoccupied with this insecurity. They are willing to stifle critique and innovation in the name of a tailored image of Wash. U. They have the trademark and copyright policy of a paranoid Hollywood studio, and the Wash U Photo Captions situation is not the first instance of this obsession. In fact, the University seems to be making it a springtime tradition to send cease-and-desist letters over student work: received one last spring after making a usable version of course listings. Its interface has received positive reviews from students, unlike WebSTAC’s cardboard and duct tape system. Along the way, however, WashUCourses (now at happened to register a domain name with a University trademark in it. The University, in its infinite paranoia, has even trademarked its nicknames. It also “aggressively polices” third parties’ use of these names. Wash. U. claims that the phrases “Washington University in St. Louis” and “Wash. U.” cannot be published without written authorization. I hope this seems as ludicrous to you as it does to me.

It is about time that we as a University community ask if we are willing to sacrifice intellectual exploration and the ability to critique our own institution in order to present a clean, uniform image to the world. It is clear to me that this is not worth the sacrifice. Our University exists in order to provide a place to freely explore ideas and improve upon the status quo, not to have a chilling effect upon student creations. If the University continues stifling ideas and innovations that don’t strictly fit into Public Affairs’ strategic plan, then the intellectual value of the University is diminished. It is even more disappointing when the University hides behind questionable claims to do so, as they have with Wash U Photo Captions. I deeply hope that the University reconsiders the path it is taking—not just with regard to Wash U Photo Captions, but also more generally.

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