New York Times Ethicist Weighs in on U. Georgia Case

By on January 21, 2008

Yesterday, in his New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen weighed in on the case of a student at the University of Georgia whose anonymity in course evaluations was violated. As I wrote last month, the college brought in a handwriting expert to identify and punish the student because of unpalatable statements he wrote about his professor. Cohen writes:

[F]or the university to abandon its pledge of anonymity is a cure worse than the disease. While such remarks are vile and rightly discouraged, the actual harm here is minimal; the call-the-cops response will do greater damage, discouraging students from providing information important to the university’s function and subverting students’ trust in the university.

Cohen notes that a student cannot expect his confidentiality to be honored in the case of “a serious, imminent threat. But an odious comment does not carry the same weight.”

Cohen offers a compromise, but I do not agree with even this restriction: “Anonymity should be guaranteed only for comments about a professor’s work, not as a get-out-of-jail-free card … There should also be a process for determining if a transgression has occurred, akin to what our legal system requires before a search warrant is granted.” The first point here is that students need to know ahead of time what the rules are. If someone has broken a constitutionally defensible school regulation, the school may hold that person accountable.

But Cohen’s second point is equally important: a student’s expression in a course evaluation is very rarely—almost never—actionable, and the standard for punishing it must be extremely high, just like the standard for punishing speech in other contexts. A course evaluation offers students an opportunity to discuss the overall classroom environment as well as how the course fits the school’s entire curriculum—not merely the professor’s work. To me, a germaneness standard like the one Cohen offers is too easily abused.