- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO College students have long dished dirt about professors, warning their classmates about whom they should avoid. While the practice may have ruffled a few academic feathers, it has been seen mostly as an innocuous part of campus life.

But that was before the Internet. Now that such student critiques have gone on line, the practice has started a controversy over free speech and libel that could have effects far beyond the ivory tower.

At the City College of San Francisco, an English professor who was the object of some particularly vicious written attacks by students has filed a lawsuit that challenges the entire notion of the Internet as a forum for unfettered speech.

Daniel Curzon Brown, who is an openly homosexual author, has been called "homomanic," "racist" and "mentally ill" on a Web site (www.teacherreview.com) that posts anonymous reviews of teachers at the college. Other professors have been the subjects of sexually explicit stories.

The suit, which went to trial in San Francisco Superior Court last Wednesday, is an attempt to shut down the Web site. "It is wrong. It is evil. I don't see how anyone can justify it," Mr. Curzon Brown said in an interview.

The lawsuit has attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and Internet experts, who have lined up behind Ryan Lathouwers, 27, the former computer science student who started the site in 1997 as a way for students to find classes best suited for them.

ACLU staff attorney Ann Brick said the future of the Internet as a free and open means of exchanging views may hinge on the case.

"The First Amendment means that sometimes feelings get hurt," Miss Brick said. "The value in preserving those freedoms far outweighs the harm of hurt feelings."

The Internet, she noted, is "just full of" bulletin boards and chat rooms where opinions are exchanged. "You are not going to have those on the Internet if the creators of those forums are at risk of being held liable for what is posted."

Legal experts say that the Internet is not subject to the rules of libel and defamation that govern newspapers. In the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Congress gave Internet service providers immunity from liability to encourage them to police their sites.

"In order to induce people to be willing to [remove objectionable material], we need to offer them immunity," said Pamela Samuelson, professor of information management at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley.

She said Mr. Lathouwers should fall under the law because he is essentially providing an Internet service. But how the court interprets his role in this case could set the precedent for small Web sites, she said.

"It is really important for public discourse that little guys who run sites are not chilled out of the picture," Miss Samuelson said.

Mr. Lathouwers, who is working at an Internet start-up in Sausalito, Calif., defended his Web site. "I'm just a conduit for student opinion," he said. "People have a right to express their opinions. The opinions are not always positive."

City College also was named in the suit because the site can be reached from its Web page. Chancellor Phillip R. Day Jr. said the college would not close down the Web site, even though it has the power to do so, because of First Amendment concerns.

Instead, Mr. Day said, he is working with Mr. Lathouwers on a system that will maintain anonymity while verifying that only students who have studied with the professors are submitting the reviews.

The college is also developing its own site, which would provide detailed information about professors to help students choose classes.

Although most of the college's 1,750 professors refuse to get involved, Mr. Curzon Brown has support among some colleagues, including the head of the English department and a physics professor who was deluged with poor reviews and saw enrollment in his courses drop after he criticized the site.

The fight has roiled City College, a community college with 10 campuses across San Francisco. Students bicker about the merits of the postings, and meetings about how to deal with the site degenerate into hostile debate.

Jesykah Forkash, 20, a student in Mr. Curzon Brown's English class, said she did not agree that it should be used for personal attacks but said it is "totally valuable" and has been accurate about every teacher from whom she has taken a class.

But Justine Heinze Giardello, 18, whose father is a professor at the University of San Francisco, said students do not understand how hard professors work. Students should not be able to bash teachers in a forum that is out there for the world to see, she said.

"I think it is horrible," she said. "How would we feel if there was a student review judging us on a personal basis?"

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