Go to any consumer-oriented website and you'll find reviews of the newest refrigerators, PDAs, and cars.
So what happens when people are reviewed for the job they do?
The reviewers end up in court.
Several professors from San Francisco City College are suing the webmaster of a site that posts evaluations of their classes. What happens with the case may have implications for other sites that follow the same model.
Teacher Review provides a forum for students at the college to voice their opinions about their professors.
The entries range from enthusiastic raves to venomous personal attacks.
Here's one of the good ones, from a student who places a professor on the A-list: "He's very well organized, always available for office hours, and always available for questions. He gives plenty of practice material and detailed answer sheets for them. His lectures were interesting and engaging."
Here's one from the bottom 10, concerning a professor given an F: "It is difficult to be thoughtful and proper when writing or talking about this pompous, misoginyst (sic), racist, socially impaired, power-hungry, butt-hole from outer space.... Don't take his classes, he should be thrown out of City College. Try him for a day or two if you must, but as soon as you see the madness creep in, get the hell out of there. He should not be a teacher."
Negative posts like this sparked two professors to take legal action against the school, the posters, and Ryan Lathouwers, the creator and webmaster of the site. Professors Daniel Curzon-Brown and Jesse David Wall are asking for damages for defamation, spreading false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"It's criminal behavior," said Curzon-Brown, an English professor at City College. "It destroys our reputations."
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. Whether or not the professors have a case will be decided on June 14.
"If he's not making any money off of the site and it's purely provided as a public forum, it's likely to be a purely First Amendment issue," said Jason Epstein of Baker Donelson Bearman & Caldwell. "In this case, (Lathouwers) most probably wins."
On the other hand, Epstein said, if he is making money from the site, and he can control what the poster is saying -- for example, if he edits the postings -- then he may be liable.
In addition, if the plaintiffs can track down who posted the derogatory comments, they may be able to collect damages.
"These reviews said I killed a student; one said that I had sex in the classroom," Curzon-Brown said.
"You always have a right to sue the alleged direct defamer," Epstein said.
But that does not mean you win, he added. And there needs to be proof of damages, as well.
Lathouwers did not return calls seeking comment on the suit.
Another site, TeacherReviews.com, will watch what happens in the case. The site follows a similar format, but includes reviews from universities all over the world.
"We've thought about (the lawsuit), but it hasn't concerned us," said Dylan Greene, the site's co-founder and president. "We've got bigger, better things to worry about."
The site has been around for a year, and so far, there have been few complaints, according to Greene. Lathouwers, a defendant in the case, is the site engineer for TeacherReviews.com as well.
"We're trying our best to make it a site you can trust and there haven't been any problems yet," Greene said.
Epstein, who specializes in the Internet and e-commerce, said that these types of sites are getting more and more common.
But Curzon-Brown is angry that the focus is on teachers at all.
"This is a way to extort grades from teachers," he said.
"Why should it just be teachers? Why not judges? Why not journalists?" he said.
And Curzon-Brown admits that he's been frustrated with the lack of responses from other teachers.
"They're afraid to speak up," he said. "A lot of them are in denial. They think if they bury their heads in the sand, it's not there." -------------------------- Related Wired Links:
Colleges Hitting Low Notes, October 6, 1999 -- See http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,31723,00.html ************************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org