On May 27, 2003, Ryan Spevack, a 20-year-old student at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz., launched two Internet gripe sites, the now-defunct www.shittyschools.com and the ongoing www.fullsailsucks.com. The latter is a swipe at Winter Park-based Full Sail Real World Education, a for-profit school that offers its 4,000 students an education in fields such as recording and digital media.
"I know a lot of people who go to Full Sail," Spevack says. He won't divulge any names. "These tech schools, they're not all they're hyped up to be."
That is the sentiment of the many anonymous posts on Spevack's site. One recent addition: "Full Sail may in fact be the Devil. The school is a scam. ..."
Most complaints center on the gripe that Full Sail overstates the success of its job-placement program, and that a degree from the school doesn't transfer to universities. (The latter is true, though Full Sail degrees transfer to trade schools.)
Full Sail administrators blocked the site on all the school's computers and asked the World Intellectual Property Organization, which regulates domain names, to block Spevack from using the domain name. On June 27, the school sued Spevack; his film production company, Zero One Entertainment; webmaster Joshua Sloan and a former Full Sail employee, Krista Belanger.
The suit alleges trademark infringement, saying the sites "unfairly disparage and defame Full Sail, tarnish and dilute its trademark and intentionally interfere with Full Sail's relationships with prospective students as customers. ... In the shittyschools.com web site, near the reproduced trademark are the words, '3 piles of shit awarded to Full Sail for being a real shitty school! Congratulations, Full Sail!' Between those words and the depiction of the trademark are three brown objects which depict excrement." In addition to an injunction, Full Sail demanded $500,000 in damages, the amount it alleges in court papers that Spevack bragged his site has cost Full Sail.
The defendants think Full Sail is trying to bully them. "This is a slap suit, designed to silence speech, to chill speech and shut it down," says Sloan's attorney, Larry Walters.
But Full Sail attorney Michael Gay says the lawsuit is about protecting the school's trademark, not silencing critics, though he admits the school is concerned about the website's apparent connection to a competitor, the University of Advancing Technologies.
For now Spevack's site remains. On Oct. 3, the WIPO ruled that Spevack's domain name wasn't confusing to prospective students and, unless a court rules differently, he could keep it. Also, last week, a federal judge in Orlando dismissed the lawsuits against Spevack, Zero One and Sloan on jurisdictional grounds. Full Sail has the option to refile the suit in Arizona, where the websites originate, or to appeal.
The claim against Belanger is ongoing. Of all the defendants, Belanger is the most tenuously tied to the website. After she was fired on April 21, Belanger's roommate set up a website (www.geocities.com/i_hate_full_sail), which compares school admission representatives to used-car salesmen. Full Sail argued that the Geocities site was a precursor for Spevack's site. Belanger denies that.
Full Sail also alleged that Belanger was providing information to the website; she disputes that too, saying she didn't know it existed until she got court papers. Mediation is scheduled for next month, but Belanger insists she won't settle unless she gets the complaint dismissed.
"This bitch will go to a jury," Belanger says.