ACLU News - The Newspaper of the ACLU of Northern California, November/December 2000
Profs Agree to Dismiss Suit Against
"Teacher Review" Webmaster
Just days before a scheduled hearing in San Francisco Superior Court, the ACLU-NC won a victory in
Curzon Brown v. San Francisco Community College District when City College professors Daniel Curzon Brown and Jesse David Wall voluntarily agreed to dismiss their lawsuit against the operator of an Internet website where students can post critiques of their teachers. The defendant, Ryan Lathouwers, was represented by Bernard Burk and Amy Margolin of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, and ACLU-NC staff attorneys Ann Brick and Margaret Crosby.
The Teacher Review website, which Lathouwers created while a City College student in 1997, provides an online resource for students trying to decide which teachers and courses to select. Lathouwers, who left City College in 1998, has continued to maintain the site without compensation as a service to the City College community. Curzon Brown and Wall, who had among the lowest overall ratings of the over 600 City College instructors reviewed on the site, were suing Lathouwers, the site's "webmaster" over their objections to comments about them that had been posted on Teacher Review, and over their objections to Lathouwers' administration of the site.
"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 enacting the Communications Decency Act, and the promise the Founders made to everyone in adopting the First Amendment."
"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 ACLU-NC staff attorney Ann Brick. "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. This lawsuit threatened one of the most important and fundamental functions of the Internet: providing forums for the expression of opinion."
"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," said Lathouwers.
City College English professor Daniel Curzon Brown filed the lawsuit in October 1999on 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
Physics professor Jesse David Wall joined the lawsuit last May, when a new and different amended complaint was filed. In the amended complaint, the two professors sought damages from Lathouwers for a variety of uncomplimentary and sometimes offensive comments students 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-NC 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.