No professor enjoys poor teaching evaluations but University of Wisconsin-Whitewater communications professor Sally Vogl-Bauer has taken a more aggressive approach. She has sued former student Anthony Llewellyn who took her class last year and wrote a scathing evaluation. She says that the evaluation contains untrue and defamatory statements, but the lawsuit raises troubling questions in the pursuit of a former student for expressing his opinion of a class and a teacher.
Llewellyn posted videos on YouTube and wrote comments on Blogger.com and TeacherComplaints.com. He wrote comments that said that Vogl-Bauer criticized his intellectual ability, treated him unfairly, and was the reason that he failed out of school. He also says that he spoke with Vogl-Bauer about these concerns two months before he was told that she had failed him.
Attorney Tim Edwards is representing Vogl-Bauer and says that the review was not an honest evaluation but “a concerted effort to attack somebody’s reputation because things didn’t go your way, that’s much different.” Llewellyn was asked to take down his comments and videos but refused. Vogl-Bauer then sued him for punitive damages and fees. The case has not been dismissed and will receive a jury trial in September.
Vogl-Bauer’s author bills her as an “award-winning teacher” and she has co-authored a book on “Interpersonal Communications.”
Llewellyn suggests that such interpersonal skills were lacking in alleged comments that he was a terrible student and did not belong in college. Vogl-Bauer calls such comments libel, plain and simple. The lawsuit charges that Llewellyn “engaged in an intentional, malicious and unprivileged campaign to defame Dr. Vogl-Bauer, resulting in substantial economic, reputational and emotional injuries.”
Llewellyn said that he tried to contact the school officials to object to what he called Vogl-Bauer’s “degrading, demeaning, verbally attacking” of him as well as various outside groups.
I have not been able to locate a copy of the complaint, but much of the quoted comments appear to fall into the category of opinion which is not actionable. There does not appear to be a question that the defendant was indeed in the class. Such opinion may be demeaning and degrading but still protected. My concern is that we have seen an increase in actions against people posting reviews of restaurants, hotels, and others on sites inviting reviews. The sites themselves are generally not liable for such comments but they have been hit with lawsuits to strip commenters of anonymity.
The question will come down to what is demonstrably untrue and what is merely an opinion.
The case reminds one of Mr. Chow of New York v. Ste. Jour Azur, 759 F.2d 219, (2d Cir. 1985), where a Chinese restaurant sued a food critic for a negative review. The reviewer made the following allegedly libelous comments:
(1) “It is impossible to have the basic condiments … on the table.”
(2) “The sweet and sour pork contained more dough … than meat.”
(3) “The green peppers … remained still frozen on the plate.”
(4) The rice was “soaking … in oil.”
(5) The Peking Duck “was made up of only one dish (instead of the traditional three).”
(6) The pancakes were “the thickness of a finger.”
The jury found for the restaurant and awarded $20,000 in compensatory and $5 in punitive damages. However, the court of appeals reversed and found that the statements were protected as “opinion.” Notably, the statement about the Peking Duck came closest in the court’s view since it was a factual statement, but the court still found that it would not support the verdict due to the absence of malice:
Because of the absence of evidence showing either that Bridault or Millau knew that Peking Duck was not traditionally served as three dishes or that they subjectively entertained serious doubts about the accuracy of the statement that it is traditionally served in three dishes, we cannot say that the existence of malice has been established by clear and convincing evidence. Thus, this statement cannot support the judgment entered below.
I do not see the Peking Duck comment in the coverage of this lawsuit but that is why it would be good to review the complaint.
Source: Gazette Extra