Coach USA, the parent company of the ShortLine bus service whose routes routinely ferry Cornell students in and out of Ithaca, sent a cease and desist letter to on-campus satire publication CU Nooz about an online piece that poked fun at fall break travel times.
The letter, obtained by The Sun and sent by Coach USA’s assistant general counsel, called the piece “libelous” and threatened legal action if not pulled off of CU Nooz’s website. The article, originally entitled “Student Spent Entirety of Fall Break on Shortline Bus” spoofed the travel experience of a fictional student on a nonexistent ShortLine route, saying that long bus journeys prevented her from spending time at home.
Sean Hughes, a spokesperson for Coach USA, said the article could be misleading to customers in a statement to The Sun.
“Shortline understands that the article was satirical, but if anyone unknowingly was doing a search on ShortLine services and this article came up they would not see that it was fake news,” Hughes said.
The letter, sent Monday morning, lists instructions for the piece to be “immediately removed” and for “no further libelous material will be published on cunooz.com.” The original article was posted on Oct. 16.
After receiving the letter, CU Nooz updated the article on Tuesday morning, crossing out words and replacing them with bolded, all-capitals text: “Kayla Gladstone ‘22
spentDID NOT SPEND the entire duration of Fall Break on a Shortline service” and “When asked for comment about the delays, aNO Shortline representative replied: ‘Fuck you, we’re Shortline. That’s why.’”
In a statement to The Sun, the editorial board of CU Nooz said that they modified the article to remove sections that “Shortline may find offensive.”
“While normally we wouldn’t be afraid of any legal requests, even we know not to get on the wrong side of Coach USA’s fearsome legal team,” the board’s statement read, which was provided by Sam Ringel ’20, one of the co-editors-in-chief.
The satire magazine’s board said that while it mulled yanking the article, it elected to simply provide edits as CU Nooz was “uniquely qualified to take a stand against the nationwide assault on freedom of the press, given that we are, in fact, a college satirical newspaper.”
Prof. Nelson Tebbe, law, told The Sun that he thinks CU Nooz may not have even needed to respond to the request.
“The general rule is that satire and parody are effective kinds of speech,” Tebbe said — speech which would be fully subject to the First Amendment’s protections. “This particular [article] is just hilarious, especially as amended.”
In cases of satire, the Student Press Law Center points to a 1988 Supreme Court Case regarding parody or spoofs that are accused of libel.
“A parody or spoof that no reasonable person would read as a factual statement, or as anything other than a joke – albeit a bad joke – cannot be actionable as a defamation,” the court’s decision in the case, Walko v. Kean College of New Jersey, read.
Coach USA stated that they did not know if customers would be in on the joke.
Ahad Rizvi ’21, who is not associated with CU Nooz, sent an email to ShortLine on Tuesday regarding the cease and desist, which he called “horrible,” and the original article — which he called “hilarious.”
His email also listed complaints about past experiences with the service, including that the bus arrived hours later than scheduled and that workers were rude to riders during a 2018 trip.
Rizvi received a response on Tuesday from Laurie Heller, marketing manager for Coach USA. In the email, obtained by The Sun, Heller says that the article “wasn’t funny to us” and that ShortLine has served Cornell and students for many years — something that that it “takes great pride in,” Heller wrote.
Heller wrote to Rizvi that seeing the article was “upsetting,” even if it was satire. “We really just didn’t want that article found on the internet and someone think[ing] it was true,” Heller told The Sun on Wednesday.
Rizvi said that he stood by his complaints regarding ShortLine’s service, and his critique of their response to CU Nooz.
“I don’t think anyone took the article as a malicious attack on Shortline, it was just funny,” he told The Sun.
Kyle Karnes, CEO of Student Agencies, which contracts with Coach USA and the ShortLine service, told The Sun on Tuesday that Student Agencies had been unaware of the letter and uninvolved in its sending.
On Wednesday, CU Nooz published another article entitled “8 Bus Companies We’d Rather be Sued by Than ShortLine.”
This article has been updated.