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UW-Whitewater professor sues former student over online comments

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Andrea Anderson
May 22, 2014

WHITEWATER—A UW-Whitewater professor is suing her former graduate student, saying the student's comments on websites are defamatory.

“When you make false statements of fact repeatedly about another person with the intent of harming them, that's over the line,” said Tim Edwards, attorney for UW-Whitewater communications professor Sally Vogl-Bauer.

“If you truthfully say, 'In my experience, this isn't a good teacher, I didn't have a good experience, she was late' and that's your opinion, that's fair," Edwards said.

Vogl-Bauer is suing Anthony Llewellyn for defamation.

The lawsuit alleges Llewellyn “engaged in an intentional, malicious and unprivileged campaign to defame Dr. Vogl-Bauer, resulting in substantial economic, reputational and emotional injuries.”

Websites dedicated to students reviewing their instructors have proliferated. The Whitewater case raises the question of when online comments become defamation.

Llewellyn posted videos on YouTube and wrote comments on Blogger.com and TeacherComplaints.com describing what he said Vogl-Bauer did to him while he was in her communication theories class in spring 2013.

A few of Llewellyn's claims are Vogl-Bauer:

-- Said he didn't belong in college

-- Labeled him as a horrible student

-- Docked him points on assignments

-- Caused him to fail out of school

Llewellyn said he spoke with Vogl-Bauer in April about her behavior before he was notified in June that he failed her class.

After trying to communicate with UW-Whitewater Department of Communication faculty and staff and university administration, Llewellyn sent emails to the Eastern Communication Association, Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission describing Vogl-Bauer's behavior as “degrading, demeaning, verbally attacking,” according to court documents.

Edwards declined to comment on the specifics of his client's case.

“Persistent defamation among one's peers and within a small professional community can be devastating to the career of a well-respected professional such as Ms. Vogl-Bauer,” Edwards said.

Vogl-Bauer denies all allegations, Edwards said.

Edwards said he and his client agree students should be allowed to express their opinions.

“But when you go so far beyond that, into a concerted effort to attack somebody's reputation because things didn't go your way, that's much different,” Edwards said.

Llewellyn said his goal was to inform the public about the professor's treatment of him, not to defame her.

Students commonly post reviews of teachers, universities and colleges on websites such as RateMyProfessors.com.

With the same mission as Yelp.com or other review sites, Rate My Professors allows people to rate professors based on easiness, helpfulness, clarity and rater interest.

Makayla McGinnis, a UW-Whitewater sophomore majoring in political science, consults Rate My Professors when deciding between two teachers teaching the same class.

McGinnis said people need to digest comments and realize there are times when comments get out of hand.

“I think you have to take things on Rate My Professors with a grain of salt, because anyone can post anything on there,” McGinnis said. “So, obviously, if someone hates that professor, they can go on there and trash them.”

Llewellyn did not say he posted on Rate My Professors. He posted on Teaching Complaints, a website where people can submit complaints about teachers or schools.

“It is my sincere hope that students in particular will do their homework before getting involved with teachers and universities,” Llewellyn wrote in an email.

Students read online reviews to see what a professor might really be like, McGinnis said, and might base final class decisions on the online reviews.

Students The Gazette interviewed said they prefer making final decisions based on friends' recommendations, word of mouth and class time.

UNIVERSITY EVALUATIONS

UW-Whitewater has its own systems for gathering student opinions about instructors.

The majority of UW-Whitewater's college departments ask students to complete course evaluations online near the end of each semester.

Students get an email with a link and deadline. The alternative is to set aside class time for paper evaluations, said David Travis, dean of the UW-Whitewater College of Letters and Sciences.

UW-Whitewater does not post teacher evaluations online, but reviews are public record, and students could request them, he said.

Students prefer online evaluations compared to paper because they can do it at their convenience and instructors won't recognize their handwriting, Amber Ralston, a UW-Whitewater sophomore majoring in psychology, said.

Travis agrees.

“They're a little more personal with their feelings in the online approach,” Travis said. “They are more passionate, I guess you could say, about their experience in the classroom. I have to say I'm most pleased by the fact that we get these really glowing comments with the online approach that I didn't see as much with the handwritten comments.”

Instructors don't see the reviews until after grades are submitted, Travis said.

Jeremy Colberg, a junior studying business management, said he doesn't visit websites such as Rate My Professors. He prefers talking with friends. Colberg hopes UW-Whitewater faculty look at the evaluation feedback and take students' comments to heart.

The university takes evaluations seriously, Travis said. They gauge how well a professor is doing, what can be improved, and how content can be adjusted.

Evaluations can be based on a numerical scale or include comments.

Travis, a former professor, said he read reviews and used both negative and positive comments to improve.

“Negative comments aren't always necessary to help an instructor improve,” Travis said. “Positive comments are also helpful because they're reinforcing what we're doing is working, and we want to do more of that sort of thing.”

The school evaluations are more beneficial for professors, whereas online review sites are more helpful for students, Travis said.

LEGALITIES

Bruce Boyden, a Marquette University law professor specializing in Internet law, sees online commenting and the Internet as a growing cultural phenomenon.

People can distribute information to people they've never met, and it creates issues that didn't exist before, he said.

A picture, article or comment can go viral at any moment.

Controlling commenting online is difficult, Boyden and Edwards said.

The websites and domains have no responsibility for the things posted, Edwards said. That lies with the person who posted it.

Edwards and Vogl-Bauer asked Llewellyn to take down his videos and comments criticizing Vogl-Bauer, but  Llewellyn has not. That's why he's being sued, Edwards said.

The law of defamation applies to people posting online just as it does to those publishing statements in print, Boyden said.

Vogl-Bauer is suing Llewellyn for punitive damages and attorney and trial fees, according to documents in the small claims action filed in the Walworth County Court.

Llewellyn said it's important for the videos and comments to remain online to keep the public informed.

“I don't feel I've went too far with my videos and comments because everything posted basically communicates exactly how Sally Vogl-Bauer treated me,” Llewellyn wrote.



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