Sue the Reviewer

Cyber complainers

If you're going to Fullerton Community College, you might not want to take Biology 101 from Prof. Beta Meyer -- word has it she's "always late, and never prepared. Plays favorites." Or so it says on whototake.com, a Web site that allows students to post their opinions of their teachers, often anonymously. Here the prospective pupil can learn who's good ("I feel like a whole new world has opened up to me"), who's bad ("she will attempt to crush you till she can smell your blood"), who's unfair ("if you go to the bathroom during class he gives you a tardy"), and who's easy ("copy all your class notes for the test and you'll get an 'A'").

The site was created last year by James Warner, 24, a Fullerton student who felt his instructors could use a little consumer review. His site now examines professors in colleges across California, plus one school in Wisconsin. Some posts are effusively positive; some are harsh and angry. Some are thoughtful critiques; others reveal more about the reviewer than the professor. And all of them have angered Dana Clahane, a Fullerton professor of mathematics, who last March wrote Warner that "most of the information is misleading and often vicious," theorizing in an aside that the more positive reviews were posted by the instructors themselves.

The upshot was that Warner may face "a class action lawsuit...if these comments are not removed immediately." Clahane added that "you can insist that your freedom of speech should not be infringed upon, but these instructors, including me, will assert that you are infringing on our academic freedom, the right to teach our classes in our best professional judgment."

To date, the threatened suit has not been filed, though other school-centered sites have faced similar attacks. In the most famous case, two professors at City College of San Francisco filed a defamation suit against teacherreviews.com last year. The site -- filled, like whototake. com, with often nasty, often anonymous descriptions of professors and classes -- had included some homophobic comments about one of the plaintiffs. Upon deciding that they probably wouldn't prevail in court, the duo dropped the suit, agreeing to pay the webmaster $10,000 as well.

More recently -- and more bleakly, at least for those who support unfettered cyberspeech -- a magistrate has ordered a Web hosting company to reveal the anonymous parties responsible for truthatulm.homestead.com, a muckraking thorn in the side of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Once the webmasters' names are made public, ULM administrator Richard Baxter intends to file a defamation suit against them.

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