MAY 13, 2013
“Texas Teacher Sues Two Students For Defamation”
By Kristen Butler, United Press International
May 13 (UPI) — High school English teacher Elizabeth Ethredge has filed suit against two students claiming she was suspended and may be fired because they told the principal that she had asked her class to stalk a suspected thief on Facebook. Ethredge claims she was giving an “oral storytelling” lesson in November 2012 when she told her class an anecdote about her son having personal property stolen at a high school in another district, reports Courthouse News Service.
The complaint states that Ethredge “mentioned to her students that they might be able to help recover her son’s property.” She invited any student with a Facebook account to help by messaging the suspected thief to try and purchase the stolen item from him.
Ethredge claims the two students only brought it up months later, in March of this year, when she sent them to the principal’s office for disruptive behavior and a dress code violation.
“Defendants wrote statements about the oral storytelling exercise that were clearly retaliatory in nature, designed to take the focus off of their inappropriate behavior and to instead focus the principal’s attention on plaintiff,” the complaint states.
As further evidence of the students’ alleged “deliberate and malicious intent to injure plaintiff’s reputation,” the complaint shows that one student posted a message to Facebook during school hours that said, “Hey Ethredge, “I threw stones at your house” what you got for me big bada**? Case closed!”
The second student named in the suit commented on the post, saying “Hahahahah [expletive] ain’t got [expletive]!”
Days after the cited Facebook posts, the Board of Trustees of the Waller Independent School District proposed termination of Ethredge’s employment.
Ethredge seeks punitive damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“UW-Whitewater Professor Sues Student Over Postings”
By Associated Press, May 22, 2014
WHITEWATER, Wis. (AP) — A University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor is suing a former graduate student who posted online comments and videos that the teacher considers defamatory.
Anthony Llewellyn took a class last year from communications professor Sally Vogl-Bauer, but the experience didn’t go well, the Janesville Gazette reported Thursday.
Llewellyn posted comments on professor-rating sites accusing the teacher of criticizing his academic abilities, grading him unfairly and causing him to fail out of school. He said he spoke with her in April about his concerns, two months before he was told he had failed her class.
Vogl-Bauer contends the comments amount to defamation, while Llewellyn says his goal was simply to inform the public about how the professor treated him.
Tim Edwards, the attorney representing Vogl-Bauer, said the comments could be especially damaging to someone in a small professional community. He said he and Vogl-Bauer agree that students should be allowed to express their opinions, “but when you go so far beyond that, into a concerted effort to attack somebody’s reputation because things didn’t go your way, that’s much different.”
Edwards and Vogl-Bauer asked Llewellyn to take down his online comments and videos. They filed the lawsuit after he refused.
Llewellyn said it’s important for the videos and comments to stay online so the public can remain informed.
“I don’t feel I’ve (gone) too far with my videos and comments because everything posted basically communicates exactly how Sally Vogl-Bauer treated me,” Llewellyn said.
The lawsuit seeks punitive damages and attorney and trial fees. The case is scheduled to go a jury trial in September.
It’s not clear how successful the lawsuit will be, but a similar case in Minnesota ended with a ruling in favor of the person who posted the online rating. In the case (*), a doctor took offense when a patient’s son went on a rate-your-doctor website and called him “a real tool,” slang for stupid or foolish. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in January 2013 that the comment wasn’t defamatory because it was an opinion protected by free-speech rights.
(*) David McKee MD vs Dennis Laurion, Minnesota Supreme Court Case # A11-1154
John Nova Lomax, Houstonia Magazine, August 1, 2013
It was November 13, 2012, and 12th-grade Waller High School English teacher Elizabeth Ethredge was teaching a class on storytelling when things went off course. By all accounts of the day (taken from a report from the school that was later included in a lawsuit), the teacher started complaining that a Cy-Fair ISD student had stolen a computer from her son.
In one version of events, the eight-year Waller veteran urged her students to contact the miscreant on Facebook and make bogus offers to buy the computer back. (Ethredge herself is a user not of Facebook but Twitter, where she is a self-described “wife, annoying mom, the Football Lady, and a teacher of literature and life.”) In another version, the teacher told her students that she wouldn’t be opposed to their harassing the thief. And a third version, reportedly corroborated by multiple students, accuses Ethredge of wasting precious class time by giving out the alleged thief’s Facebook information and cellphone number and urging her pupils to put the bandit “on blast” until he coughed up the computer.
All was calm for more than four months. Then, this past March, according to court documents, student Dylan Wells burst into Ethredge’s classroom ahead of the bell in “a loud and boisterous manner.” Ethredge happened to be chatting on her cell at the time, making the intrusion doubly annoying. Wells was sent to the principal. Enter another student, Demi Gray, “already hurling insults and exhibiting an extremely flippant attitude” in solidarity with Wells.
In principal Brian Merrell’s office, Gray and Wells sprung what Ethredge and her lawyer Susan Soto have branded a hastily concocted trap. The duo spilled the beans about Ethredge putting her kid’s alleged antagonist “on blast” back in November, spending too much class time on her cell, over-sharing personal info, and working on her grad degree during class time. “Multiple students in multiple class periods confirmed,” according to the resulting report, that during class time Ethredge had organized what amounted to a mob of cyber-bullies.
Ethredge later confessed to telling her students that she “would not be opposed” to them harassing the perp. “But I didn’t tell them they could do it on class time,” the teacher reportedly said. On April 3, Ethredge was suspended with pay, and five days later Ethredge was terminated.
Gray taunted on Facebook. Wells chimed in.
Ethredge filed suit in Harris County District Court alleging that her former students had defamed her character, libeled her, inflicted emotional distress upon her, subjected her to public hatred and ridicule, and caused her to seek a physician’s care. And those Facebook taunts! What an outrageous breach of acceptable student-teacher relations! She hopes that the kids will be forced to pay court costs and actual and exemplary damages, with interest.
General Counsel for HISD’s teacher’s union, attorney Chris Tritico, thinks the likelihood of that ever happening is virtually nil. “I usually advise my clients not to file these cases because collecting money from 17-year-old kids is next to impossible,” he says. “You might get a piece of paper saying that you won, but nothing else. It’s a decent case she has, but still, they’re kids.” (The lawyer for Wells and Gray declined to comment.)
That’s beside the point, according to Ethredge’s attorney Susan Soto, herself a former teacher and principal. A solo practitioner, Soto was drawn to the case because she doesn’t believe that kids should be able to back-talk their teachers, reduce a teaching career to shambles, and then taunt them on Facebook. And like Ethredge, she sees the case as a teachable moment. “She dedicated a lot of time teaching these kids not just English, but also life lessons,” Soto says. “This suit serves as a model for students, shows them the process on how to stand up and do the right thing.”