Q. Am I allowed to give my candid opinion on course evaluations in school?
A. Any time we render an unfavorable opinion of someone, we risk running foul of the Biblical prohibition on lashon hara, that is, slander. The prohibition is learned from the verse "Don't go about as a talebearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:16).
However, this prohibition is not absolute. While the Torah forbids gratuitous slander, it permits negative speech when it is essential for a constructive purpose. This is learned from the conjunction of the prohibition on slander in the same verse as another commandment: "Don't stand idly by the blood of your fellow." This commandment obligates us to be pro-active in saving others from loss or harm.
The classic book Chafetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin sets out the precise conditions which differentiate permissible from forbidden derogatory speech. The main conditions are as follows:
- The report is known by the speaker to be truthful, and without exaggeration;
- The report is the only way to achieve a constructive purpose;
- The speaker's intention is to achieve this constructive purpose;
- The disclosure does not cause undeserved harm to the subject of the report or anyone else.
So while your question asks about the role of the student, and not the overall design and use of the survey, application of the above conditions shows that the answer to your question depends on what kinds of questions the survey asks and to what use the answers are put.
While it is impossible here to enumerate all the conditions, it is possible to give a few pitfalls that should be avoided:
- All questions should provide substantive information about the person's performance as an instructor. Otherwise any negative report is not contributing to a constructive purpose.
- Great care must be used in deciding who has access to the results and how they will be used. In particular, making a poor score on such an evaluation an automatic criterion for censure is unwise. Results from these surveys always needed to be viewed in the context of other indicators of the instructor's effectiveness and contribution. Also, relying too heavily on one indicator increases the chances that a few students could use the survey in a vindictive way, thus simultaneously implicating them in forbidden slander and also unfairly penalizing the instructor.
Rabbi Aaron Levine discusses this issue at length in his book Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics. One point made by Rabbi Levine is that great care must be used in releasing survey results to the press. For example, if a summary book of survey results is published, then most people who peruse it will in fact obtain no particular benefit from knowing which teachers receive a poor rating; it will then follow that those readers are exposed to lashon hara. Some results may be used only internally for faculty evaluation.
I don't believe a blanket ban on publication of the results is necessarily called for, but it is important to make sure that the public is given the whole picture and not a tendentious or vindictive use of the figures.
For the individual student, the most important thing is to fill out the questionnaire honestly and not have any vindictive intentions when giving a negative evaluation. If the use of the questionnaire is improper, I think that there is seldom any benefit to an individual student withdrawing their participation, but it is appropriate to complain to the administration if you think that the results are being used inappropriately.
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.