But when Curzon-Brown, 62, who is openly gay, took a look at teacherreview.com, he was shocked by the anonymous postings. Some remarks weren't just scathing, he says, but outright lies and viciously homophobic. "He raped me in front of the whole class—it was embarrassing," read one. "I wish you kill yourself," wrote another, "there's no need for faggots in this world." Curzon-Brown was devastated. "I'm depressed and I'm afraid," he says. "I can barely stand going to class."
He took action last fall, filing a lawsuit claiming defamation and intentional infliction of distress, against the Web site's creator, Ryan Lathouwers, and CCSF, which offers a link to the page. Experts predict the outcome will have far-reaching implications. "Libel is libel," says American Federation of Teachers spokesman Jamie Horwitz. "The fact that it takes place on the Internet makes no difference."
But others argue that the lawsuit is without merit because Internet speech is protected under the First Amendment—and further strengthened by a 1996 federal law specifying that providers and Webmasters cannot be held liable for content. "If they had to worry about being sued for what someone says," asserts Ann Brick, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing Lathouwers, "those forums would disappear, and we'd be the poorer for it."
Lathouwers, 27, a former CCSF computer student, says he created the site—which he still runs—so students could offer unvarnished opinions on what teachers to take or avoid. "I decided to transfer the word-of-mouth system from the hallway to the Web site," says Lathouwers, now a senior software engineer for MarketDrive, an Internet company. He has a disclaimer on the site asking users not to post "malicious material" but adds that he can't verify whether the writers actually took classes from the CCSF teachers they review, nor does he routinely weed out profane attacks. Forrest Lanning, who started a similar Web site at California Polytechnic State University, takes a more responsible approach. "I review the ratings and just use judgment," says Lanning, who deletes obscene and cruel entries. The remaining comments are "all constructive and pretty mature."
Curzon-Brown's students say his classes can be provocative. On the Web site, some describe him as rude (especially to those who speak English as a second language) and vainglorious (he assigns his own plays and novels, some with explicitly homosexual content, along with works by Shakespeare). But he does have his fans. "His class is entertaining," says Cady Earnest. "I've had better English teachers, but I've also had far worse." The tenured professor counters, "I'm a good teacher. I have fun. I'm also a hard grader and that's the core of the dissatisfaction. If you saw the stuff I read, you'd be a tough grader too."
The Web-site fiasco wasn't what Curzon-Brown envisioned when he chose the literary life. Born in Litchfield, Ill., to a homemaker, Ida Vanola, and a factory worker, Russell Brown, both deceased, he studied at the University of Detroit, earned graduate degrees in English from Kent State University in 1961 and Wayne State University in 1969 and taught part-time at CCSF before joining the faculty full-time in 1988.
While he waits for a court decision, expected this month, Curzon-Brown continues to teach English and creative writing. He also spends time with his partner of two decades, John Gettys, 47, a library technician. Sometimes, in the San Francisco apartment Curzon-Brown shares with his cat, Jackie, he can't help but log on to the detested Web site. "It's set up from the get go in a stupid manner," he fumes over the latest attacks. "It's a place where cyberthugs and hackers send in reviews of people they've never met."
Penelope Rowlands in San Francisco