Delicate little flowers aren’t born, they’re made.
— Abraham Lincoln, Second Battle of Bull Run, 1862
A master’s student at the University of Wisconsin, Anthony Llewellyn, didn’t like his professor, Sally Vogl-Bauer. She was, he maintains, mean to him. So mean that following his dismissal from the University, he made a YouTube video. [Trigger Warning: Really lousy video ahead]
If the video is any reflection of his communication skills, the question isn’t whether Vogl-Bauer was too mean, but whether there’s any rigor in Wisconsin’s admission standards. Nonetheless, they let Llewellyn in, and he took Vogl-Bauer’s required course. He did not think well of his professor. So, he let it be known.
But if his assessment was, well, sensitive, it was nothing compared with Vogl-Bauer’s, who sued him for defamation:
Sally Vogl-Bauer, a tenured professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, doesn’t dispute that students retain the right to exchange opinions about professors online. But in a civil suit filed in a Wisconsin circuit court, she says that a former student’s extensive online commentary about her teaching amounts to defamation — not protected speech. She says the student, after being dismissed from the university, “engaged in an intentional, malicious and unprivileged campaign” throughout 2013 to besmirch her reputation.
He besmirched her.
In the suit, Vogl-Bauer alleges that her former master’s-degree student, Anthony Llewellyn, defamed her on various teaching review and other web sites, including blogs and YouTube. She says he lied in saying that she “degraded,” and “verbally attacked” him. He also allegedly lied by saying that Vogl-Bauer called him a “horrible student,” deducted points from his grade, and was responsible for his being dismissed by the university.
The case raises questions about the line between rating and defaming one’s professor, and of what, if any, ethical and legal obligations students have in publicly assessing professors’ performance.
It is alleged that Llewellyn went on a full-tilt internet tear against Vogl-Bauer, with websites and comments reflecting Llewellyn’s feelings, including the video, emailed other profs in the department and a letter to the Eastern Communication Association. Vogl-Bauer’s lawyer explains why this was so very wrong:
“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.
One might hope with all one’s heart that someone at the University of Wisonsin would be the grown-up in the room. So it isn’t Llewellyn. It obviously isn’t Edwards. And apparently, it isn’t Sally Vogl-Bauer either. And so, she sues.
It may be that some of Llewellyn’s factual, as opposed to opinion, assertions aren’t true, though it’s likely impossible for Vogl-Bauer to prove. So a student and professor had discussions, which he says were mean and degrading and she says were kind and wonderful. What else is new? Absent some magical ability to prove the statements defamatory, Vogl-Bauer’s suit is dead in the water.
Yet, the fact of a professor suing a former student who thought she was the most awful professor ever is where this devolves to besmirch her reputation far more than this student possibly could. His vendetta comes off as nothing more than a vendetta. His communications appear infantile and ridiculous; another butthurt kid lashing out. This is the stuff you laugh off, not sue over.
And the fact that Llewellyn went to such extremes to pursue his hate on Vogl-Bauer isn’t a reason to sue a student, but a reason to get him therapy. This is the conduct of an internet nutjob, that crazed person sitting up all night in a dark room trying to think up new and bizarre ways to attack the person shooting gamma rays at his brain. You pity someone like this. You don’t sue him.
But now that Sally Vogl-Bauer has chosen the road to the courthouse, a new level of crazy has been breached. Students sue professors and schools. Professors sue students who LIE, LIE, LIE about them in their public assessments. Today, it’s crazed talk on the internet, because everyone knows that if it’s on the internet, it must be true. Tomorrow, it’s the student assessment handouts at the end of class and a whisper campaign to the incoming frosh.
And if Vogl-Bauer’s reputation was so easily besmirched by one student’s vendetta, she might be better advised to work on her rep.
That students have devolved from buddy scholars and statesmen to butthurt babies is, sadly, a trend that’s been happening for quite a while now, as higher ed has facilitated, if not encouraged, them to elevate their feelings above all else. But why is there no grown up in the room? If it’s “fair” that academics retaliate by suit against students for butthurt of their own, then cries of academic freedom will be replaced by screams to “lawyer up.”
The insanity has to stop somewhere, and it would seem that telling the babies to suck it up is too little, too late. But any professor who thinks suing a student is going to vindicate her academic reputation has lost already. Stop the madness. Grow up. Everyone.