ACLU Defends Student Website in Case that Threatens Free Expression on the Internet

January 31, 2000 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA — In a case with important implications for free speech on the Internet, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has asked a Superior Court to dismiss a lawsuit aimed at shutting down a website that provides student reviews of the teachers at San Francisco City College.

The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court City College by professor Daniel Curzon Brown, who objects to what students had to say about his teaching.

The ACLU, on behalf of Ryan Lathouwers, the creator of the Teacher Review website, says that the speech is protected under the First Amendment. Other defendants in the suit, the San Francisco Community College District, which is the governing body of City College, and the Associated Students of City College, agree.

“The Teacher Review website is a perfect example of how the Internet functions as a unique and valuable information source,” said ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Ann Brick. “If permitted to proceed, this case would sound the death knell for any website or bulletin board allowing members of the public to exchange opinions.”

A City College student himself at the time he created Teacher Review, Lathouwers said he wanted to provide an online resource for students trying to decide which teachers and courses to select. At the time, there was no systematic way for students to find out just what other students who had taken a class from any particular instructor had to say about the experience.

The website, with its student-authored reviews, was launched in September 1997. Since that time, more than 5,000 individual reviews of nearly 600 City College instructors have been posted. The site, which has proved very popular with students, has been visited over 100,000 times.

Curzon Brown, a tenured English professor, was rated on the website as one of the ten worst teachers at City College. Student reviews of Curzon Brown include comments like “pompous,” “the most egotistical extremist there is” and “the worst teacher I have ever had the opportunity of knowing.”

“Imagine a liberal arts professor unable to tolerate his students expressing their own opinions, and unwilling to allow students to draw their own conclusions from what others have to say,” said Bernard Burk of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, who is representing Lathouwers as a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Fortunately, the First Amendment prevents people like Professor Curzon Brown from using lawsuits to silence their critics.”

Last October, Curzon Brown filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of himself and all other City College employees “who have been or will be defamed by the content of Teacher Review.” His suit seeks monetary damages, and an injunction prohibiting the posting of “defamatory” reviews on the website and prohibiting either City College or the Associated Students from linking to Teacher Review.

A hearing is scheduled for March 29th in San Francisco Superior Court.

The case is Curzon-Brown v. San Francisco Community College District. In addition to Burk and Brick, the case is being litigated by Celia P. Van Gorder and Sean A. Pager of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, and ACLU of Northern California attorney Margaret Crosby. A copy of the ACLU’s motion is available online at http://www.aclunc.org.

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