Three weeks before a group of current and former students sued Denver Public Schools over their racial justice podcast, they met with district officials in an eighth-floor conference room at Denver Public Schools headquarters.
Video from the Aug. 29 meeting reveals a central tension in the dispute. In the meeting, district officials talk about the podcast, which the students created in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as something akin to a class or a club. They say the podcast will expand across the district and welcome new participants as previous ones graduate.
But the founders talk about the podcast, “Know Justice, Know Peace: The Take,” as a deeply personal project born from their individual attempts to grapple with a nationwide racial reckoning — and something they want to continue to do outside of school.
“You said that we would only be able to still participate in the podcast until we graduate,” senior Dahni Austin said to Deputy Superintendent Tony Smith in the meeting. “Why, if we created the podcast way before the district got involved with the podcast, wouldn’t we be able to continue?”
“I think you would be able to continue to participate in some form or fashion,” Smith said. “But it is the position of the district that it’s the intellectual property of the district to continue on.”
Whether the podcast and its name belong to Denver Public Schools is an issue that will be settled in court. Last month, Austin and three others filed a lawsuit claiming that Colorado’s largest school district unlawfully tried to trademark “Know Justice, Know Peace: The Take.”
Viva Moffat, a University of Denver law professor who specializes in intellectual property but is not involved in the lawsuit, said the legal issues in this case are not unique.
It’s common, she said, for two entities to argue over who holds a trademark. Legally, a trademark belongs to whomever used it first “in commerce” across state lines. That means the person or business used the mark in its branding, even if they weren’t making money on it. In this case, the podcast was posted for free on YouTube.
What is unique about this case, Moffat said, are the players.
“It’s extremely unusual for there to be a trademark dispute between a school district and students in the school,” she said. “That is extremely unprecedented — and that’s probably for lots of reasons. Students aren’t often coming up with trademarkable things and then using a trademark in commerce. And it’s also uncommon for a public school district to be aggressively asserting intellectual property rights against its own students.”
While Moffat said she doesn’t know of any trademark cases involving students and schools, she said there are established copyright cases. Generally, she said, original works like podcasts are owned by the people who create them or, if they are employees of a company, by the company.
But she said there’s an exception for teachers that generally applies to students as well.
“Just because you’re in a class and you write an essay, nobody would say that DPS owns the copyright and all the papers that all of DPS’s students wrote,” Moffat said.
Meeting video sheds light on what happened before lawsuit
The video of the late August meeting sheds more light on the events that led to the lawsuit. Four students – all young Black women at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College high school – started the podcast in July 2020 as a way to speak out about racial injustice. They had support from then-Principal Kimberly Grayson and teacher Kiara Roberts.
The students recorded the podcast at school and were paid for their work through a district apprenticeship program. Grayson left the school this past spring, and the students weren’t sure they would continue to get paid. For that reason and others, they decided they wanted to continue their podcast independently.
“We’re not obligated to stay in a space where there’s continuous missed connection,” senior Kaliah Yizar said at the meeting, “especially when this is our job, this is our passion.”
In June, Grayson filed paperwork to form a business called Know Justice, Know Peace: The Take LLC. The students said she did so to help fulfill their wish to record the podcast independent of Denver Public Schools. But when the district learned of the LLC, it filed state and federal trademark applications for the name in early August.
On Aug. 24, a district lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Grayson asking that she dissolve the business and turn over the usernames and passwords for any email address or social media accounts associated with the “Know Justice, Know Peace: The Take” podcast.
The district asserted in the letter that it owned the name because the podcast was created on district property using district equipment and was supported by district employees.
But at the meeting, the students said they started the podcast over Zoom on their own computers, without any district equipment. Their lawsuit argues that they first used the name in commerce in July 2020 when they posted their first episode to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
“For DPS to say they own a creation that they were not even a part of in the beginning is crazy,” said Jenelle Nangah, who was a rising senior when the podcast started and graduated in 2021.
“‘Know Justice, Know Peace’ is our faces, who we are,” said Yizar, who was a rising sophomore in the beginning. “It’s really grimy to all of a sudden, once all of the remaining original members are seniors, once Jenelle is no longer a student of DPS, once Grayson is no longer a DPS employee, to come in and say, ‘We’ll take over now.’”
Smith, the deputy superintendent, said the district isn’t trying to hurt the podcast founders.
“Your voice is appreciated,” he told them, adding that “it’s always up to you whether or not you want to be part of how we proceed forward. The invitation is there.”
“I don’t know why you are giving us the invitation,” Nangah replied. “We should be able to give the district the invitation to take what we have created and expand it.”
District lawyer and students’ lawyer have different interpretations
Chalkbeat first requested a copy of the meeting video in early September. The district denied that request, citing a federal law that protects student privacy.
But after the students filed their lawsuit in mid-September and held a press conference, district officials allowed Chalkbeat to view a video of the meeting late last week and interview Denver Public Schools General Counsel Aaron Thompson.
Thompson said the district shared the video in part to refute a claim in the lawsuit that Smith attempted to “coerce and bully” the students into admitting that the district owns the trademark.
Thompson said Smith was soft-spoken and “comported himself very fairly.” The video shows him sitting in a relaxed posture, legs crossed, and speaking in an even tone.
Thompson said the video also shows that the podcast is district property because the students admitted they eventually used district equipment to make it and were paid for their work. Thompson said the district didn’t try to protect its property until Grayson created the LLC.
“It never was, in our view, about the girls or taking anything from the girls,” he said. “We’ve always owned it. It was only an action to stop Kim from erroneously asserting ownership.”
Thompson said it’s unfortunate that the students are caught in the middle, “but we have a responsibility to the other 90,000 students of DPS to protect the integrity of our educational programming and to expand viable educational programming for all students in the district.”
In a statement, the students’ attorney Jeffrey Kass said that the podcast founders felt that the recent meeting, which was called before they could hire a trademark lawyer, was an attempt to intimidate them and “say something without the advice of proper legal counsel.”
“DPS asked them many different ways at the meeting to agree that DPS owned the podcast and trademark,” Kass said. “Each time, the students denied.”
Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news organization covering education issues. For more, visit chalkbeat.org/co.
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