The University of Saskatchewan is fighting back against a group of elected senators.
Established this year, University of Saskatchewan Senators Working to Revive Democracy, or USSWORD, has made a series of controversial statements about how the university is run. Specifically, the group takes issue with corporate influence allegedly exercised at the U of S and with Nancy Hopkins, chair of the university’s board of governors. Hopkins has been a director at Cameco since 1992.
On Oct. 6, the university’s lawyers at McKercher LLP sent USSWORD a cease and desist letter (see below). However, the university is not claiming any wrongdoing other than trademark infringement.
The phrase “University of Saskatchewan” is a trademark of the U of S and its use in USSWORD’s name has drawn the ire of the university.
“No one is authorized to use the [trademarks] in Canada except under written license from the University. This includes the use for any purpose, including without limitation political or social commentary purposes, especially if the use suggests an association or approval from the University,” the letter reads in part.
The letter concludes with a demand that USSWORD “immediately cease and desist from any and all unauthorized use” of the university’s trademarks and a warning that “[i]f you do not comply, we have instructions to pursue all available legal remedies.”
Sandra Finley, the member of USSWORD to whom the letter was addressed, said the group has changed its name as a precaution. The full name is now University Senators in Saskatchewan Working to Revive Democracy.
“What’s happening is the university is using the threat of the justice system as a way to silence people who are trying to get some remedy for serious problems at the university,” Finley said when reached by telephone.
According to her, the university has a track record of using litigation or the threat of litigation as a way to intimidate troublesome members of the university community.
“They’re not dealing with the problems. The approach that they’re using is contributing to an escalation of the problems,” she said.
Finley was reluctant to alter the name of her group but ultimately took her lawyer’s advice and made the change.
“You have to choose where you will spend your time… and there’s no need to allow ourselves to be potentially drawn in like that [into litigation]. It’s simply not worth testing it,” she said.
University president Peter MacKinnon insisted there is nothing out of the ordinary about the university’s actions.
“The University of Saskatchewan is a registered trademark,” he said via telephone from La Ronge, Sask.
Although numerous groups identify themselves in a manner similar to USSWORD — the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association, for example — MacKinnon said the senators were not an organization the university wanted to be associated with.
“The cease and desist letter is directed at an organization, a self organized group of members of the senate, whose agenda is anything but a senate agenda and has been prone to making ad hominem attacks on the chair of the board,” said MacKinnon.
MacKinnon said the university would also protect its trademark from other groups it disagreed with, like a group of senators that advocated for violence in hockey, for example, if they used “University of Saskatchewan” in their name.
USSWORD, however, seems to have particularly offended MacKinnon.
“Certainly as president I have no sympathy for the motivations of this organization,” he said.
MacKinnon added that the threat of legal action was not an attempt to silence the group.
“Well what I wanted to do was protect the name of the University of Saskatchewan and did not want this body to cover themselves with the cloak of a University of Saskatchewan organization,” he said. “It’s not intimidation at all. It’s the university seeking to do what it’s legally entitled to do.”
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Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf