Paul L. Caron

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Tenured Wisconsin Prof Sues Former Student Over Online Comments on Her Teaching

Inside Higher Ed, Rating or Defaming?:

Many professors dislike instructor review websites, saying they attract disgruntled students in particular and thus offer a skewed – but very public – account of their teaching abilities. Others say students aren’t always the best judges of teaching ability, and that they tend to rate easier courses and professors more highly than meaningful but challenging ones. But most professors now see being rated on the Internet – good or bad – as an inevitable part of the job.

SVBSally Vogl-Bauer, a tenured professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, doesn’t dispute that students retain the right to exchange opinions about professors online. But in a civil suit filed in a Wisconsin circuit court, she says that a former student’s extensive online commentary about her teaching amounts to defamation -- not protected speech. She says the student, after being dismissed from the university, “engaged in an intentional, malicious and unprivileged campaign” throughout 2013 to besmirch her reputation. She says it resulted in “substantial economic, reputational and emotional injuries,” and she’s seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

The case raises questions about the line between rating and defaming one’s professor, and of what, if any, ethical and legal obligations students have in publicly assessing professors’ performance.

The suit says Llewellyn made similar, allegedly false statements in a letter to a professional organization, the Eastern Communication Association. The letter also says Vogl-Bauer told the student that men are “sexist,” and that she “screamed” and “lashed out” at him, and accused him of plagiarism. Llewellyn in the letter allegedly says that Vogl-Bauer engaged in “unjust and unethical teaching practices” and that she acknowledged all of those behaviors and apologized for them. Llewellyn also allegedly sent an email to Vogl-Bauer’s department colleagues containing similar comments.

Vogl-Bauer did not respond to a request for comment. Her lawyer, Timonthy Edwards, who is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, in Madison, said his client’s case was not about whether or not students can rate their professors online. “I’ve taught at the law school for 15 years, and both [Vogl-Bauer] and I get student evaluations every year,” Edwards said. “We would never suggest that that right should be taken away from anyone who has criticism for an instructor. But this is completely different.” Edwards continued: “When somebody goes onto the Internet because they’ve gotten a bad grade or result they don’t like, and anonymously posts things to get even or secure revenge, and they do it over and over again intentionally, that’s not protected speech. You can’t do that, no matter who you are or where you are.”

In the suit, Vogl-Bauer alleges that her former master’s-degree student, Anthony Llewellyn, defamed her on various teaching review and other web sites, including blogs and YouTube. She says he lied in saying that she “degraded,” and “verbally attacked” him. He also allegedly lied by saying that Vogl-Bauer called him a “horrible student,” deducted points from his grade, and was responsible for his being dismissed by the university.

Jonathan Turley (George Washington), Wisconsin Professor Sues Former Student Over Bad Evaluations Posted on the Internet:

The question will come down to what is demonstrably untrue and what is merely an opinion. The case reminds one of Mr. Chow of New York v. Ste. Jour Azur, 759 F.2d 219, (2d Cir. 1985), where a Chinese restaurant sued a food critic for a negative review. ...[The Second Circuit] found that the statements were protected as “opinion.”

Simple Justice, Sensitive Sally Smacks Special Snowflake Student Silly:

It may be that some of Llewellyn’s factual, as opposed to opinion, assertions aren’t true, though it’s likely impossible for Vogl-Bauer to prove.  So a student and professor had discussions, which he says were mean and degrading and she says were kind and wonderful.  What else is new? Absent some magical ability to prove the statements defamatory, Vogl-Bauer’s suit is dead in the water.

Yet, the fact of a professor suing a former student who thought she was the most awful professor ever is where this devolves to besmirch her reputation far more than this student possibly could.  His vendetta comes off as nothing more than a vendetta. His communications appear infantile and ridiculous; another butthurt kid lashing out.  This is the stuff you laugh off, not sue over.

And the fact that Llewellyn went to such extremes to pursue his hate on Vogl-Bauer isn’t a reason to sue a student, but a reason to get him therapy.  This is the conduct of an internet nutjob, that crazed person sitting up all night in a dark room trying to think up new and bizarre ways to attack the person shooting gamma rays at his brain.  You pity someone like this. You don’t sue him.

But now that Sally Vogl-Bauer has chosen the road to the courthouse, a new level of crazy has been breached.  Students sue professors and schools. Professors sue students who LIE, LIE, LIE about them in their public assessments.  Today, it’s crazed talk on the internet, because everyone knows that if it’s on the internet, it must be true.  Tomorrow, it’s the student assessment handouts at the end of class and a whisper campaign to the incoming frosh.

And if Vogl-Bauer’s reputation was so easily besmirched by one student’s vendetta, she might be better advised to work on her rep.

That students have devolved from buddy scholars and statesmen to butthurt babies is, sadly, a trend that’s been happening for quite a while now, as higher ed has facilitated, if not encouraged, them to elevate their feelings above all else. But why is there no grown up in the room?  If it’s “fair” that academics retaliate by suit against students for butthurt of their own, then cries of academic freedom will be replaced by screams to “lawyer up.”

The insanity has to stop somewhere, and it would seem that telling the babies to suck it up is too little, too late. But any professor who thinks suing a student is going to vindicate her academic reputation has lost already.  Stop the madness. Grow up. Everyone.

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