Pensacola Christian College is back in the news again and once again they’re not doing themselves any favors on the PR front. To completely understand the $100,000 lawsuit that the college has filed against former student Pete Gage over his ownership of the domain name pensacolachristiancollege.com we must first go back all the way to 1996 and a non-approved newsletter named The Student Voice. It’s quite a story.
Back in those early Internet days, PCC had just begun to issue e-mail accounts so that students could stay in touch with friends and family back home. What they didn’t count on was the subversive nature of the uncontrolled flow of information that comes when you let people freely communicate. This is, after all, the college that has in its handbook that 150 demerits (enough to get a student immediately expelled) would be issued to any student who participates in an “unauthorized petition [or] newsletter.” It was in this environment that a couple of alumni began to e-mail current students with The Student Voice publication, which asked hard questions directly challenging the college’s authority.
What ensued was a full-on assault from the college administration. E-mail privileges were taken away from all students. Students who were then in attendance recall being told that visiting the website of the Student Voice or reading the newsletter would result in expulsion. The authors were called bitter and rebellious, people who simply wanted to hurt the college and by extension wanted to harm the cause of Christ. In short the administration did everything possible to suppress free speech, free thought, and any and all forms of dissent on campus. Those who have attended there (as I did) know that’s just business as usual at PCC.
In what I suspect was a gesture of defiance, Pete Gage, one of the Student Voice founders registered the domain name penscolachristiancollege.com and made it the home of the newsletter archives and and active discussion forum. In 2001, the college responded by filing a complaint with the National Arbitration Forum which claimed that Gage had set up this website “primarily for the purpose of disrupting Complainant’s business, since at the web site to which the domain name resolves, Respondent has posted information critical of Complainant’s rules and policies.” But after considering the case, the panel found that the Student Voice “has rights and legitimate interests in respect of the domain name at issue” and dismissed the case.
Under normal circumstances that would have been the end of it. After a few years went by the Student Voice website stopped getting a large amount of traffic and the forums were shut down, leaving only the archives for people to view. Pete even offered PCC the option to buy back the domain name for the price of $75,000 either paid to him or the charity of his choice. They declined. And so the site sat gathering Internet dust until this week when PCC launched another suit against Gage for $100,000 in damages claiming that he was using the website “for the purpose of misleading and confusing the public about its association with PCC, and trading on the goodwill, reputation and fame of PCC.” The irony is that this legal action from a school that teaches that it is a sin for Christians to sue each other in court. It’s obvious that they’re just dripping with goodwill.
The truth is that this suit is not about reclaiming a trademark. Anybody who has seen the project costs for the campus buildings can reasonably assume that people who will spend 54 million dollars on a new auditorium can probably afford 75 grand to reclaim a domain name, especially if that money is going to charity. What this entire case is about can be summed up in the word “revenge.” Pensacola Christian College hates people who flout its authority — and I do not use that word lightly. The insult given by someone daring to start a newsletter that they did not approve has to be answered by and they will not rest until they have broken the will of anybody who would dare to oppose them.
The rest of this story remains to be written. As fundamentalism follows its slow slide into oblivion the anger felt by those who cannot understand why their attendance numbers are dropping and their influence is declining will no doubt continue to projected outward against those who point out their flaws. It would be far too hard to look within and see that their biggest problem is not a domain name but rather the despots who rule that institution with an iron hand. I fear that realization will come far too late.
Update 1:It appears that Peter Gage has chosen not to fight the lawsuit and has instead given the domain name pensacolachristiancollege.com to PCC. However, the Student Voice still lives on in the archives.