Highly overrated?

January 14, 2015
Konni deGoeij

Online rating sites like RateMyTeachers.com can operate beyond arm’s reach

Teachers are among a number of professional groups that are the subject of anonymous online ratings, which also target university professors, lawyers and doctors. RateMyTeachers.com is an international website that provides “consumer ratings” of teachers by students and parents in the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. A person entering the site must choose a country, a school, then a teacher from that school. One may rate a teacher by simply logging in without establishing an account, but in order to see all posted ratings by other raters, one needs an account. The website also contains discussion forums and user comments that can be seen without logging in.

The scope of coverage of Alberta schools on RateMyTeachers.com is very broad. It appears that almost all schools from K-12 in Alberta are included on the site, and it is assumed that a large proportion of teachers are listed. It is unclear what the source of this information is; a presumption would be that it comes from the websites of Alberta Education and school boards. All ratings posted on RateMyTeachers.com are anonymous to the viewer, however they are not anonymous to the website provider, which asks for and collects personal information of anyone with an account.

Comments for each teacher are divided into two sections, one for students and one for parents. Parent comments are posted in a separate section and not alongside student comments. When looking at a teacher list for a school, graphics provide an overview of each teacher’s overall rating. A cartoon face that is smiling, ambivalent or grumpy characterizes the overall view of the teacher. Such faces also appear beside each individual rating as a visual cue of the contents of the particular rating. The ratings are generally for teachers, but may also apply to school administrators and counsellors.

How are teachers rated?

Students rate teachers on three criteria: easiness, helpfulness and clarity. The student rates the teacher between one and five in each of these categories, with five being the easiest, most helpful or the clearest. The rater can also include comments about the teacher.

Parents rate teachers similarly, but the rating is based on the following three questions:

  1. Did both you and your child know what was expected in this class?
  2. Did the teacher treat your child with respect, care and knowledge of the child’s needs?
  3. Was the classroom work the right difficulty for your child?

Members of the site, including teachers, may respond to any particular comment posted about a given teacher. This can be done by clicking on the comment in question or by creating a dialogue comment in relation to the teacher. Once again the responses are anonymous.

RateMyTeachers.com does take some internal precautions against defamation, harassment and bullying through its rating rules, which prohibit certain types of comments. Additionally, the rules provide that any threats against teachers, administrators, other students, school property or comments that state an intention to harm oneself will be turned over to the proper authorities along with the computer IP address.

In tandem with the monitoring, users may also flag any comments they feel don’t comply with the rules. RateMyTeachers.com will then reconsider whether the comment should be posted, then place a check mark beside the comment (or absence of comment if it has been deleted) to show that the comment has been reviewed.

Privacy concerns

RateMyTeachers.com shows teachers’ names, places of employment and opinions about them. Under Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA) these three pieces of information constitute personal information. Assuming that RateMyTeachers.com publishes rating information without the consent of the individual teacher, such publication without consent is a breach of Alberta’s privacy legislation. However, RateMyTeachers.com is not an Alberta organization and, as a result, the Alberta Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has no jurisdiction over it.

RateMyTeachers.com is owned and operated by a limited liability corporation, MisterMessage LLC, based in California. As such, there is no Alberta entity that can be challenged in our courts or tribunals.

The United States has different laws than Alberta respecting defamation generally and Internet defamation in particular. In the U.S., federal legislation protects web providers from liability for publishing others’ statements. It also provides a constitutional right to anonymity and reduces vicarious liability for the statements of others, or what we call “republication.” These laws are laid out on the RateMyTeachers.com site under a link entitled “Legal.” While this is not the state of law in Alberta, this legislation would apply to any action commenced in California.

To the extent that ratings may appear to be defamatory, it would be very difficult for the Alberta Teachers’ Association or individual teachers to take legal action against the website or the individuals who post comments on the website. There are several reasons for this:

  1. The comments are anonymous, making it difficult to identify the proper defendants to a legal action;
  2. Fair comment based on true facts or facts reasonably believed to be true is a strong defence to an action in defamation in Canada, and a defendant is usually excused from liability for publishing opinions;
  3. RateMyTeachers.com is based in California, and Alberta courts have no jurisdiction over it, so any legal action would need to be filed in California; and
  4. U.S. defamation law is more lenient towards those whose comments injure others than is Canadian law.

Potential impact

In an era when there is increasing awareness of the implications of Internet defamation and harassment, it’s natural that professionals are nervous about the emergence of websites like RateMyTeachers.com. The impact on teachers may be even greater since most of the website’s users are students who have a less than mature appreciation of the impacts of their communications and whose impulsive comments may have an undue influence on other young minds. In this particular instance the difficulty arises because the raters are anonymous and the website operators and owners will not likely subject themselves to the jurisdiction of the Alberta courts.

RateMyTeachers.com has taken some steps to minimize defamation and harassment on its site, including imposing a strict policy against name calling, sexual comments, descriptions of physical attributes, comments about home and family life, comments about religion or race and other personal attacks that are not relevant to a teacher’s teaching ability. This policy is not perfect and does not fully protect teachers from defamation and harassment, but it does help reduce the extremity and resulting impact of the comments posted.

Suggestions for Alberta teachers and administrators

RateMyTeachers.com and its parent corporation are exclusively foreign, so any failure of the website to comply with Alberta or Canadian privacy legislation is beyond the remedial jurisdiction of our privacy commissioners. However, while legal action against RateMyTeachers.com is impractical, there are some realistic steps that teachers and administrators can take.

The first step in protecting teachers or students from cyberbullying is for school jurisdictions to implement an effective harassment policy. The Association has a model harassment policy on its website, as well as other guidance on the essential elements of a harassment policy.

Once a harassment policy is in place, it needs to be communicated to all students, staff and teachers in a manner that reflects its importance. One suggestion is to present the policy at the beginning of the school year at an assembly or in home rooms. School administrators may also consider providing each student with a copy of the harassment policy to take home or put in their agenda planners. If the school has a website, the policy should be readily available online. The policy could also be posted publicly near the school office or other public place.

Students need to be educated about the negative consequences that their Internet communications can have on other students, staff and teachers. While RateMyTeachers.com does some monitoring of comments to protect subjects from personal attacks or unwarranted vulgarity, this may not be the case for all such websites. Even where monitoring occurs, it may be insufficient.

In addition to educating students, administrators may use their discretion to block questionable sites on school computers. It is perfectly acceptable to refuse access to certain sites where students may abuse their anonymity to vilify their teachers and where it may be a necessary precaution in order to protect teachers and other students from abuse.

Where administrators become aware of harassment against teachers or students, they should take steps to investigate and remedy the situation, as part of their responsibility under section 20 of the School Act to maintain order and discipline in their schools. This would also include harassment disguised as “evaluations” or “ratings.”

A safe learning environment for all school participants may be negatively affected by behaviour outside the school or classroom in accessing and interacting with websites. Principals should follow the procedures outlined in their school’s harassment policy. Investigation is an essential ingredient of an effective harassment policy, especially when Internet publications are anonymous. Administrators may contemplate suspension and expulsion in appropriate cases.

Teachers who feel that they are being bullied or harassed should speak to their school administrators about the situation. If the school board has a harassment policy in place, the teacher and his principal should use the policy’s provisions to address the situation. Furthermore, it may be helpful in providing another route for remedial action to negotiate anti-harassment provisions into the collective agreement.

Konni deGoeij is executive director, Edmonton Public Teachers Local No 37.