Midwestern professor sues ex-student for Internet defamation

The quality of a reputation largely depends on an individual’s or company’s actions.However, a reputation damaged by someone else’s comments can come back to bite the author.

Free speech rights give individuals the opportunity to express themselves. False accusations against others, however, can cause unfair reputation damage. A communications professor at a Midwestern university claims a former student crossed the line.

Several websites are devoted to ratings by consumers. Similar sites allow students to chime in on how well they think instructors teach. The ex-student named in the professor’s Internet defamation lawsuit allegedly filled professor review sites, blogs, letters and YouTube with scathing, untrue remarks about her.

The plaintiff claims the one-time University of Wisconsin master’s-degree student went on a written rampage. The student wrote that he was verbally abused by the plaintiff, accused of plagiarism, unfairly graded and unjustly treated. Reports didn’t state why the student was tossed out of the university, but the defendant claimed that the dismissal was the professor’s fault.

The lawsuit wasn’t the professor’s first line of action. She apparently contacted the defendant and asked that he remove the negative comments posted throughout last year. When that didn’t happen, she opted for legal action and requested compensation for injuries to her reputation and emotional and financial well=being.

In a letter to the Eastern Communication Association, the student accused the instructor of being unethical. The letter, and a similar one sent to the instructor’s co-workers, stated that the professor acknowledged she had been unreasonable and apologized. The plaintiff’s attorney believes the written attack exceeds the limits of protected speech.

Internet defamation is a serious charge. Cornell University Law School’s website states that a defendant’s statements must be false, publicly available and injurious. Evidence must prove the defendant acted negligently or intentionally to harm the plaintiff’s reputation. California residents may benefit from consulting with an attorney if they believe that they have been defamed via the Internet.

Source: Inside Higher Ed, “Rating or Defaming?” Colleen Flaherty, May. 23, 2014