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.