Wisconsin Professor Sues Former Student Over Bad Evaluations Posted on the Internet

200px-University_of_Wisconsin-Whitewater_logoNo 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

70 thoughts on “Wisconsin Professor Sues Former Student Over Bad Evaluations Posted on the Internet”

  1. Yelp make billions of dollars because people depend upon their reviews. And, they are vigilant in deleting reviews w/ an agenda. The integrity of their reviews are critical to their success. Smart people read reviews, but always w/ a skeptical eye.

  2. It’s pretty laughable all this monkey chatter, and then the guillotine comes down. These defamation of character laws need to be abolished, pure and simple. To think people actually listen to reviews, conjecture, rely on word-of-mouth, and so on makes my skin crawl. All anybody needs to do is look at the history and results.

  3. Mr. Edwards, I too would extend you an invitation to comment here. My daughter practices law in Madison and works for the state, I’m fairly certain you’d know her.

  4. Mr. Edwards, If you read my comment AFTER Oxa made his, I think you will see I amended my previous remarks. My amended comment is @ 11:58a. My amended comment, after analyzing the information Oxa provided, shows a fundamental change in my opinion. When I saw you interviewed on one of the local Madison stations, you were emotional. I have no problem w/ emotion, I’m Italian. But, it just didn’t seem appropriate. However, after reading the information provided by Oxa, I see how the defendant also came after you! Now, I understand your emotion. I attempted to convey my empathy by giving an example of how a stalker came after myself and my family on Amazon, making vile comments about us in a “review” of her book. My first comment provided the caveat that I did not have enough information. More information was provided and I made a more informed analysis. If I were a juror during my first comment, based on limited “facts,” I was leaning toward the defendant. After being provided more “fact” I lean now toward your client.

    We have many discussions here on anonymity and the internet. I am on record as understanding anonymity, but not liking it. Both here and everywhere I read comments, if you attach you real name to something you are more prudent. Bomb throwers love anonymity. I never use an alias.

  5. Annie – I offered you a chance to find the complaint, as well. I see you have not taken me up on my offer.

  6. Interesting. Just yesterday, someone who comments on this blog frequently refused to corroborate a claim that he made.

    1. Elaine – interestingly enough several people who made comments here owe me links.

  7. Paul, being impatient and demanding Mr. Edwards supply you with the complaint, won’t get you what you want. Stomp your feet, maybe that will help. In the meantime Professor Turley has offered him a means of communication.

  8. Mr. Edwards

    Annie is correct. Sadly, “I invite you to corroborate your observations” is a phrase that will likely not produce any response.

  9. I am not taking pot shots at commentators; I am questioning the accuracy of the information posted by the author, which is the purpose of this section following the article that allows for comments.

  10. Mr.Edwards, certain commenters do not corroborate comments, ever. We’ve often asked them to link to sources to back up their assertions, to no avail. They just continue to make uncorroborated allegations.

    1. Annie – I would agree. But who would that be? At this point, Mr. Edwards, who claims to be the plaintiff’s attorney, would be able to supply a copy of the complaint. Or, Annie, would you like to track it down and post it for us?

  11. I am not sure what Nick is referring to, and would invite him to corroborate his observations. It seems that it would have been prudent to review the complaint, which is a public record, along with the defendant’s statements, before mischaracterizing this as a case about student evaluations or reviews. Moreover, statements of opinion can be actionable, under certain circumstances, at least in Wisconsin. Oxa has identified the crux of the dispute, at least in part. As you will see, this case is not about a student’s right to provide evaluations of instructor ability or conduct. Thank you.

    1. Tim – you can post the complaint as a pdf for the rest of us instead of taking pot shots at commentors.

  12. Julieann, I took some course @ UW Whitewater when I was obtaining my teaching credentials in the ’90’s. They are uber disabled friendly. They had one of the best wheelchair basketball teams in the Midwest when I attended.

  13. Also Mr Edwards – How was the student’s disability issue addressed? Was he offered reasonable accommodations and treated appropriately? Or was the student denied accommodations, singled out and harassed for being different ?

  14. I am the attorney who represents the professor in this case. Unfortunately, the title of this article is inaccurate and misleading. My client is not suing for a negative evaluation from a student. Please get your facts straight.

    1. Mr. Edwards, I believe that your objection is to the words “bad evaluation” which I believe is fair without taking sides on the merits. However, we would be interested in posting your complaint if you want to send it to me. That would certainly give your client’s side of this dispute in a full and complete context.

  15. The student says he had a disability and was targeted because of it. As someone with a Masters, a learning disability, awards, patents etc… and the memory of a professor asking if anyone who had to do state tables as colored blocks – me – belonged in the university, have to say his claim is not unreasonable. The student may want to contact a disability rights attorney and make sure no one else suffers the same fate..

  16. Pale Scot,

    Syllabus, stated what was needed for a grade in that class. No where was it stated that attendance was mandatory or grade would be affected by lack of attendance. What needed to get done got done and on a timely fashion. Since it was basically a grad class, they like to cut the number down. I suppose she figured I was a good target. You know that bell curve they don’t grade on. Sometimes it’s forced distribution.

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