In Free Speech Victory, City College Teachers Agree to Dismiss Lawsuit Against Critique Website

October 3, 2000 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO–Days before a scheduled hearing in San Francisco Superior Court, the ACLU of Northern California achieved a victory when two City College professors here voluntarily agreed to dismiss their lawsuit against Ryan Lathouwers, the operator of an Internet website where students can post critiques of their teachers.

“The dismissal of this lawsuit is a true vindication for Ryan Lathouwers and for the hard work he has done in providing students at City College with an effective way to share information about teaching at the school,” said Ann Brick, an ACLU of Northern California staff attorney.

“It is also a real victory for the many working students at City College who would have lost a valuable resource had the plaintiffs succeeded in their lawsuit,” Brick added. “This lawsuit threatened one of the most important and fundamental functions of the Internet: providing forums for the expression of opinion.”

The Teacher Review website, created by Lathouwers in 1997 when he was a student at City College, provides an online resource for students trying to decide which teachers and courses to select.

Seeking to block the site, City College English professor Daniel Curzon Brown filed a lawsuit last October on behalf of himself and all other City College employees “who have been or will be defamed by the content of Teacher Review.”

His lawsuit sought 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.

Physics professor Jesse David Wall joined the lawsuit last May, when a new and different amended complaint was filed. Together, Curzon Brown and Wall, had among the lowest overall ratings of the over 600 City College instructors reviewed on the site.

Lathouwers, who left City College in 1998, has continued to maintain the site without compensation, as a service to the City College community.

“The dismissal of this case is a victory for free speech on the Internet,” said attorney Bernard Burk. “It fulfills the promise Congress made to Internet site and service providers in Teacher Review enacting the Communications Decency Act, and the promise the Founders made to everyone in adopting the First Amendment.”

Ryan Lathouwers said “I’m very glad the law provided the protections I needed to continue to offer the information and opinions Teacher Review makes available to the thousands of City College students who consult it every semester. Teacher Review may now continue as an open forum for the students who find this website useful.”

In the amended complaint, the two professors sought damages from Lathouwers for a variety of uncomplimentary and sometimes offensive comments students Teacher Review had posted about them on the website. They also sought damages from Lathouwers for his administration of the site and its content, which they claimed portrayed them unfairly.

The ACLU of Northern California and its cooperating counsel at Howard, Rice filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit showing that the teachers’ claims had no proper legal or factual support, and seeking payment of attorneys’ fees under California’s anti-SLAPP suit statute.

Rather than have the Court decide the motion, Curzon Brown and Wall agreed to dismiss their case unconditionally, and to pay the ACLU a portion of Lathouwers’ attorneys’ fees. They have agreed not to file similar lawsuits in the future against Lathouwers, Teacher Review, or anyone involved in the website’s administration or content. They also have agreed to stop posting anonymous reviews of themselves on the site, which they admitted having done during the litigation.

The defendant in Curzon Brown v. San Francisco Community College District, Ryan Lathouwers, was represented by Bernard Burk and Amy Margolin of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, and ACLU staff attorneys Ann Brick and Margaret Crosby.

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