Professors drop libel suit against creator of

Web site where students grade instructors survives challenge, remains online

CALIFORNIA -- Free speech on the Internet got a boost in October when two City College of San Francisco professors dropped their libel complaint against a student whose Web site featured less-than-flattering descriptions of the professors' teaching ability and personal characteristics.

American Civil Liberties Union cooperating attorney Bernard Burk, representing defendant Ryan Lathouwers, called it a "major victory for free speech on the Internet -- and for student media everywhere."

Daniel Curzon-Brown, an English professor, filed the suit in October 1999 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 apparent to him that he did not have a winning case.

"The law protects the stuff on the Internet that it doesn't in all other places," he told The San Francisco Chronicle. "It allows libel and homophobic hate speech; it is open season on teachers."

The site,, allows CCSF students to post evaluations of their teachers for other students to use when registering for classes. Each review grades an instructor's performance using an A through F scale. Users can post comments anonymously but must include their year in school, major, GPA range, and the class taken and grade received from the instructor under review.

Several anonymous postings about Curzon-Brown, who is openly gay, included graphic references to his sexual orientation.

The instructors' complaint named Lathouwers as a source of the anonymous postings, but Lathouwers denied the charge. The posts violated the user agreement published on the site and were removed when brought to Lathouwers' attention.

Under the settlement, reached days before the case was scheduled for trial in San Francisco Superior Court, Curzon-Brown and Wall agreed to pay Lathouwers $10,000 -- much less than the $100,000 in legal fees the court could have forced them to pay had it granted the ACLU's motion for dismissal.

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

"These comments were certainly inappropriate, but Professor Brown misses the point that these are just the tiniest fraction of a very useful site with 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."

reports, Winter 2000-01