CALIFORNIA — Free speech on the Internet got a boost in Octoberwhen 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.
American Civil Liberties Union cooperating attorney Bernard Burk, representingdefendant Ryan Lathouwers, called it a “major victory for free speech onthe Internet — 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.
Curzon-Brown said he decided to settle the suit after it became apparentto him that he did not have a winning case.
“The law protects the stuff on the Internet that it doesn’t in all otherplaces,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle. “It allows libel andhomophobic hate speech; it is open season on teachers.”
The site, TeacherReview.com,allows CCSF students to post evaluations of their teachers for other studentsto use when registering for classes. Each review grades an instructor’sperformance using an A through F scale. Users can post comments anonymouslybut must include their year in school, major, GPA range, and the classtaken and grade received from the instructor under review.
Several anonymous postings about Curzon-Brown, who is openly gay, includedgraphic references to his sexual orientation.
The instructors’ complaint named Lathouwers as a source of the anonymouspostings, but Lathouwers denied the charge. The posts violated the useragreement published on the site and were removed when brought to Lathouwers’attention.
Under the settlement, reached days before the case was scheduled fortrial in San Francisco Superior Court, Curzon-Brown and Wall agreed topay Lathouwers $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.”