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How Are Libel Laws Applied on the Web?

Dr Cooke does not like teaching evaluation sites like Rate Your Lecturer. It’s not clear to me that these sites are a bad idea. More information about lecturer quality is good in itself; the problem is when it is misused, as student evaluations usually are by administrators in the United States, because they are too lazy to investigate actual teaching or, I fear, because the administrators really do just care about whether the students like the way a class is run. But exposing bad teaching is a good thing.

False information is clearly bad. How do the libel laws work in England? Can the victim force the website manager to divulge the names? Does the libellor have to pay your solicitor fees? If the website manager has allowed people to comment whom he cannot trace, is he himself liable? If the victim wins in court, and the libellor does not pay, is the website manager secondarily liable? If the website manager does not pay, can the victim ask the court to allow him to seize ownership of the web address, and any other web address which the manager tries to use, in lieu of seizing other assets such as the manager’s automobile or bank account which are harder to locate and may be in foreign countries? There are a lot of interesting legal issues.

Also, I imagine an enterprising solicitor could earn quite a bit pursuing this kind of case, until he killed off the libelling. Would it be barratry to discover libels and offer to represent the victims? If so, would it be OK for a non-solicitor to discover libels and offer to find a solicitor for the victim in exchange for a brokerage fee? If any of you reading this are unemployed, take note.

I do think that such sites should not allow anonymous posting. If a teacher is bad enough for a student to want to criticize, that student probably won’t be taking his courses again, and if he is, he can wait a year or two to post.

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