On May 22, The Janesville Gazette (Wisc.) ran a story about Sally Vogl-Bauer, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor, suing a former graduate student over allegedly defamatory statements made online.

Vogl-Bauer contends the former student made false statements through YouTube, Blogger.com and TeacherComplaints.com about her treatment of the student. According to court documents, the student called her “degrading, demeaning, verbally attacking,” and caused him to fail out of school.

The student did not comply with Vogl-Bauer’s request to remove the posts. Thus, she initiated this lawsuit in which she is seeking punitive damages, plus attorney fees and court costs.

This is obviously not the first time a teacher or professor has been involved in a defamation lawsuit. But these lawsuits have not arisen frequently in the internet context to date.

While not an American case, in March, an Australian music teacher was awarded $AUS105,000 in damages for defamatory Facebook and Twitter posts. In that case, the son of a former music and arts department head wrote disparaging comments about the woman who succeeded his father after he left for health reasons.

Teacher, professor reviews are on the rise

Whether or not the graduate student’s posts online were, in fact, defamatory, the “About Us” section on TeacherComplaints.com unintentionally reiterates the power of a potentially defamatory review:

TeacherComplaints.com uses the enormous power of the internet, social networking & national media to get you help dealing with your situation.

As it should be clear from our other blog posts and tweets, online ratings and reviews are very prevalent and seem to be gaining in popularity.

Several articles about the Vogl-Bauer case mentioned RateMyProfessors.com, which is the largest professor rating website. According to the website, it is home to more than 14 million ratings about 1.3 professors and 7,000 schools.

It is common practice for college students to browse professors before making course selections for future terms. While students can opt against taking a professor’s course if he or she has less than stellar ratings, it is not as though the students will go to another university to fulfill a few credit hours, a la picking another restaurant, doctor, hotel, etc. over those with bad ratings.

But this does not mean disparaging remarks about a professor cannot be harmful. Thus, with so many ratings and comments about professors on RateMyProfessors.com, it would not be a surprise to see a defamation lawsuit arise out of statements made on that website.

Navigating defamation issues on RateMyProfessors.com

RateMyProfessors.com allows users to create accounts, but registration is not required. Thus, if a professor is defamed and seeks to identify the wrongdoer, he or she may not be able to obtain identifying information such as a name or email address.

However, the website – which is a subsidiary of Viacom International Inc. – does disclose information about posters when legally compelled to do so. Thus, a subpoena can be issued to obtain an internet protocol address (“IP Address”), which can be used to identify the author of defamatory comments.

Since websites typically do not maintain certain information for extended periods of time, it is important to act quickly in attempting to secure an IP Address (especially if no personal information was provided). Of course, due to student-professor relationships – especially with smaller classes – it may be possible to identify a student in certain situations, based on the content of their statements.

RateMyProfessors.com will remove content that runs counter to its Site Guidelines, which includes a policy against posting harmful content such as defamatory material. Therefore, in the event of potential defamation – perhaps depending on the severity of the statements made – the easy solution may be to simply have a defamatory review removed from the website.