Utah's Neumont University cries foul over negative online reviews
Neumont's suit raises many questions about anonymous comments.
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According to anonymous reviews posted online, Neumont University is a "sham" whose unqualified faculty doesn't respect students and doesn't prepare them well for careers in the digital workforce.

Of the 17 postings on the CollegeTimes website, there is not a word of praise for Neumont. The page warns students to avoid the for-profit school because it is nationally, rather than regionally, accredited.

Now the Utah-based school is fighting back, seeking a preliminary injunction in a Las Vegas federal court. It's also seeking damages from the site's principal, Jesse Nickles, and Little Bizzy, his online management and marketing services provider.

In court filings, the school says the site portrays a one-sided and defamatory distortion that scares students away. CollegeTimes "masquerades" as an open forum for the benefit of consumers, but in reality Nickles manipulates the content in hope of "extorting" schools into buying the site's domain name, court documents allege.

"He has deliberately suppressed information to disparage this school," Neumont president Edward Levine said. "He is trying to hurt people purely for personal profit."

Nickles declined to be interviewed but agreed to respond to emailed questions. In his responses, he accused Neumont of "spamming" the website by instructing staff to submit favorable reviews.

"Edward Levine attempted to bribe CollegeTimes to remove negative student reviews of his school, and when that didn't work, he decided to concoct an illegitimate lawsuit complaint," Nickles wrote.

Levine dismissed Nickles' assertions as "specious" and said the school offered to cover Nickles' costs.

In recent years, the web has seen a proliferation of sites, such as unigo.com and studentsreview.com, that provide students an online forum to describe their opinions and experiences with colleges and professors. The sites can serve as worthwhile sounding boards, but students or others can launch attacks (or post paid plaudits) from behind a veil of anonymity.

"There's a tension between privacy and freedom on the Internet. People do so much on the Internet, thinking it's anonymous, that they would never do if it wasn't anonymous," said Stephen Zralek, a Nashville lawyer specializing in First Amendment law. "I have rights up until they cross a line and violate your rights. The same is true with Internet postings."

He believes Internet service providers, who are immunized from defamation suits, have an obligation to remind posters of their responsibilities, such as saying things that cast people or institutions in a "false light."

"It's a tough balance," Zralek said. "We deserve the right to criticize our government anonymously, but the further from that you move, the less strong that right is."

Public forum? • The Neumont suit accuses College¬≠Times of business disparagement and interference with contractual relationships and prospective economic advantage, not libel. The page targeted by the suit isn't buried in the web — a Google search for "Neumont University" returns it on the first page.

Levine said Neumont has no problem with students expressing opinions on CollegeTimes, as long as postings are authentic and unfiltered.

"It's being edited to reflect [Nickles'] views, which are uninformed. We want him to open it up and make it a public forum, or close down the site," Levine said. "We will not tolerate these falsehoods that purely disparage."

Nickles wrote he won't agree to Levine's demands because "CollegeTimes believes strongly in protecting students from being scammed or mislead[sic]."

In his email exchanges with Levine, which are included in court documents, Nickles indicated his company would further publicize complaints from unhappy students if Neumont sued.

The school filed its suit on Aug. 7, three weeks before it announced plans to relocate from a South Jordan office park into a historic 11-story building in Salt Lake City's downtown. Established in 2003, Neumont is a residential baccalaureate college offering degrees exclusively in digital sciences.

The school lacks the regional accreditation that would enable its credits to automatically transfer to a traditional university. For that reason, CollegeTimes warns students to avoid Neumont, Nickles wrote.

Neumont claims 95 percent of students land jobs within six months of graduation, with starting pay averaging $61,000.

'Raw, unedited?' • The trouble for Neumont started three years ago when an unhappy student or parent posted a highly negative assessment on CollegeTimes' RateMyCollege section.

"Students are treated like babies, parent [sic] pay over $10k a quarter & $3k for laptops their children can't even use, there is no social life, the faculty don't care, the students don't have a voice," the reviewer wrote.

A school administrator posted a rebuttal in which she identified herself as a Neumont official. It was soon pulled down. Negative reviews have since piled up, and administrators have tried to defend the school's reputation. They saw three positive comments, but those were later removed from the page, according to court documents.

The school claims it knows of 20 students who were blocked from posting reviews, even though the site says it hosts "raw, unedited" reviews from actual students sharing "honest, authentic experiences."

The site warns students to stay away from another nationally-accredited for-profit Utah school, Eagle Gate College. Most of the 28 reviews posted for Eagle Gate excoriate the school, often detailing specific shortcomings.

"The comments don't accurately reflect how our students feel," said Julie Blake, the college's vice president for operations.

Meanwhile, CollegeTimes has de-activated its Utah pages for Stevens-Henager College, Eagle Gate's chief competitor, while its live Idaho page reveals nearly 100 negative comments. Among the few positive comments is a long post from a Henager employee.

Although Nickles claimed he treated Neumont no differently than the 15,000 other schools in his database, he provided no explanation why the site is silent on Henager's Utah campuses.

The website has been threatened with litigation from other schools, such as Alliant International University, University Canada West and Galen School of Nursing. But Nickles scoffs, arguing schools don't have evidence of libel and don't want the negative attention a lawsuit would draw.

"Instead, please shut up, stop wasting your time and our time," he writes on the site, "and consider shutting down your scammy school instead of trying to bully bloggers on the internet."

bmaffly@sltrib.com