California professors drop libel lawsuit over unflattering reviews on student’s Web site

CALIFORNIA — Free speech on the Internet got a boost this weekas two City College of San Francisco professors dropped their libel complaintagainst a student whose Web site featured less-than-flattering descriptionsof the professors’ teaching ability and personal characteristics.

ACLU cooperating attorney Bernard Burk, representing defendant RyanLathouwers, called the settlement a “major victory for free speech on theInternet — and for student media everywhere.”

Daniel Curzon-Brown, an English professor, filed the suit in October1999 claiming that comments posted on Lathouwers’ Web site defamed him.Physics instructor Jesse David Wall joined the suit in May.

The site,,formerly Teacher Review, allows CCSF students to post evaluations of theirteachers for other students to use when registering for classes. Each reviewgrades an instructor’s performance using an A through F scale. Users canpost comments anonymously, but must include their year in school, major,GPA range, and the class taken and grade received from the instructor underreview.

Several anonymous postings about Curzon-Brown, who is openly gay, includedgraphic and offensive references to his sexual orientation.

The instructors’ complaint named Lathouwers as a source of the offensiveanonymous postings, but Lathouwers denied the charge. The posts violatedthe user agreement published on the site and were removed when broughtto Lathouwers’ attention.

Under the settlement, reached days before the case was scheduled fortrial in San Francisco Superior Court, Curzon-Brown and Wall agreed topay Lathourwers $10,000 — much less than the $100,000 in legal fees thecourt could have forced them to pay had it granted the ACLU’s motion fordismissal.

Burk called Curzon-Brown’s suit irresponsible, saying it ignored thesite’s importance to the educational experience of CCSF students.

“These comments were certainly inappropriate, but Professor Brown missesthe point that these are just the tiniest fraction of a very useful sitewith thousands of productive, useful critiques by students about professors,”he said. “Two-thirds of the critiques posted give professors A’s and B’s.This site is not about being nasty — and it’s not about Daniel Curzon-Brown.”