It's understandable that Kansas University wants to try to put itself in the best possible light, but those efforts shouldn't be allowed to conflict with the constitutional right of free expression.
That issue seemed to confuse even the jurors whose verdict in KU's lawsuit against a local T-shirt shop included many inconsistencies. The KU athletics department filed a lawsuit against Joe-College.com claiming that more than 200 of the shirts the business produces and sells either infringe on university trademarks or use images that somehow could devalue those trademarks by reflecting poorly on KU.
The issue of infringing on university trademarks is relatively clear-cut. For instance, T-shirts that used the Jayhawk logo or even the word Jayhawk mostly were deemed to infringe on the university's trademark. However, even that point wasn't absolute, because a T-shirt that read "Howdy from Jayhawkland" was found not to infringe.
Jurors clearly didn't think Joe-College's use of blue T-shirts, at least close to KU's official blue, was a trademark infringement. Neither was the use of the word "Kansas" or even "Hawk."
When it got to shirts that might reflect poorly on or "dilute" university trademarks, however, the jury decisions got pretty confusing. Many shirts that poked fun at Missouri, often in off-color ways, were deemed not to dilute KU's trademark, but one that implied Missouri graduates were only qualified to deliver pizzas was found in violation. A shirt that referred to the "Kansas Drinking Team" was OK, but one that used an illustration of sperm and carried the words "Kansas Swim Team" was not.
So what was this lawsuit about? Again the trademark part seems clear. KU doesn't want anyone using KU trademarks without KU's permission and without paying a fee for the privilege. But the issue of "dilution" of the brand seems like a case of whining to mommy because someone is calling you names.
Granted, many of the messages on Joe-College T-shirts are distasteful and disrespectful, but that doesn't make them illegal. If the university is trying to legally bar the printing of anything that someone thinks reflects poorly on the university brand, it will have many targets, including its own student newspaper and any number of other news outlets.
Protecting KU trademarks is a legitimate goal, but trying to force a business that caters especially to college students to clean up its language is a fruitless and unconstitutional chore. All the KU athletics department has done so far is make itself look arrogant while, at the same time, vastly increasing the popularity of the T-shirts sold by Joe-College.com.
At this rate, KU may someday have to sue its own athletics department for reflecting poorly on the university brand.