More About Online Harassment

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Today’s Chron has an article entitled: 2 Deans Denounce Online Law-Students’ Discussion Board That Allows Anonymous Personal Attacks which reports in pertinent part:

A law-students’ chat site whose operators have refused to remove derogatory, sexist, and racist postings about individual students has sparked a furor and prompted public rebukes by two law-school deans — one from the school where a co-founder of the site is currently enrolled, and the other from a school in which students have been personally targeted.

The Internet discussion board for current and prospective law students is one of several boards hosted by AutoAdmit, which was co-founded by Anthony Ciolli, a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jarret Cohen, a 23-year-old insurance salesman. It bills itself as “the most prestigious law-school discussion board in the world.” Even its detractors say the site contains some useful insights about law firms and schools.

But it also contains postings that degrade individual students, with offensive comments that include sexual references and racist jabs. Some of those students say the derogatory comments have turned up on Google searches and have hurt their chances of getting jobs. …

… Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Gary Clinton, the school’s dean of student affairs, also released a statement last week regarding the controversy.

“As a matter of law, and under the university’s own policies on speech, we feel we have no basis for disciplinary action against the co-owner, though we have had numerous discussions with him about the board and its very unfortunate impact when ad hominem attacks are made against defenseless individuals,” the statement said.

“While these activities are outside the purview of the law school,” it added, “they may well be subject to laws governing libel and defamation brought by individuals subjected to the personal attacks one sees online, and they may increasingly become the subject of concern by bar-admissions committees.”

W. Bradley Wendel, a professor of law at Cornell University, said he discusses such concerns in his professional-responsibility class.

“Students need to know that there are character and fitness committees out there that can consider these things,” he said, referring to bar-admissions committees that have been known to reject candidates on the grounds that their actions show a propensity to violate rules governing the profession. “I don’t like that whole process, in which committees can make invalid inferences about what people might do in the future, but students need to be aware of the potential consequences before they go popping off online.”

Creating a fake Yahoo account and posting anonymously may not protect a student if a defamation lawsuit is filed and the site is required to turn over identifying information about its users. “I suspect that anonymity can be pierced pretty easily,” Mr. Wendel said.

In a posting on a legal-ethics blog, he urged students to use caution in what they write online. “Even though I don’t think acting like a complete jackass should be a basis for denial of admission, if I were one of the students who made some of the worst of these comments, I’d be sweating bullets right now,” he wrote.

Reputation Defender, which has benefited from positive mentions in the WaPo (see also) related to this controversy, not to mention a virtual commercial in the guise of a news report on NPR last fall, also helpfully gets its named mentioned once again. The Chron article states:

A group called ReputationDefender is representing four women who say their reputations have been smeared by AutoAdmit, and it has hired a law firm to consider a civil or criminal complaint on their behalf. The postings about the women included references to alleged sexually transmitted diseases and a suggestion that fellow students photograph one of the women in the locker room with a cellphone camera.

ReputationDefender’s chief executive, Michael Fertik, founded the group last year after graduating from Harvard Law School in 2005. His service attempts to remove malicious online postings, and is representing the women free “because this case is so outrageous.”

Mr. Cohen, the site’s co-founder, blamed Mr. Fertik for capitalizing on the furor. “ReputationDefender is trying to use this as a steppingstone to promote themselves, and they’re using these women as sacrificial lambs,” he said. “Instead of just coming to me and talking to me, they’ve whipped up this public frenzy that’s just causing a lot more anger and resentment.”

He said he “truly feels bad” for a Yale law student who learned that her photographs had been posted on a site linked to an AutoAdmit chat board. The site included her name and a description of her breasts, as well as comments from viewers.

What would have happened if the affected women had gone directly to Cohen? The Chron story also reports: “Mr. Cohen said in an interview that one of the women who had been asking for two years that posts be removed had threatened to sue him. “I don’t respond to people like that,” he said.” [Emphasis added]. Sheesh. Somehow I doubt the sincerity of Cohen’s putative sympathy for the referenced law student.

Meanwhile, however, ReputationDefender (“RD”) is not a “group,” RD is a for profit company. If it is representing women who have been defamed on AutoAdmit/XOXOHTH for free (as stated above), or for “nearly no fee” (as was asserted in an e-mail to me that was reprinted here), I suspect that this is because of all the favorable publicity the situation has garnered. Now, that may turn out to be a boon for the women, which is a very good thing, as they deserve a break after what they have endured. Sooner or later, however ReputationDefender will need to turn a profit, and it will likely do so off the backs of future victims who can afford their services. Those who cannot may be out of luck if their situations do not warrant front page coverage by the Washington Post. A better, more just long term solution would facilitate self-help in these matters, rather than a new business model.

UPDATE: The Virginia Law Weekly reported on this issue, below is an excerpt:

… more than one of the women whose pictures were posted to the”Top 14″site have taken matters into their own hands. Some of the women have been able to determine who was responsible for submitting pictures of them without their consent, and have confronted these students.

This was possible because a UVA Law student (who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of harassment by AutoAdmit members) deceived the”Top 14″contest’s organizers and obtained access to the email account through which they were running the site. This student subsequently downloaded all of the account’s messages, and in some cases those emails found their way to the women whose pictures were contained therein. The Law Weekly has viewed the emails in question, several of which do indeed contain identifying information, including names.

The women also told the Law Weekly that one of the more frustrating aspects of the”Top 14″events was that AutoAdmit’s administrators refused to remove any of the discussion from their message board and declined to prevent the information from being accessible through Google. In a recent Washington Post article, then-administrator Anthony Ciolli was quoted as saying that he”almost never censor[s] content, no matter how abhorrent it may be”because he is a”strong believer[] in freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas.”

Similarly, some First Amendment activists quotes in recent media reports about AutoAdmit cautioned against censorship, suggesting instead that victims of online harassment pursue remedies in court if the attacks rise to the level of actionable tort or crime.

In response to this argument, Dean Jeffries notes that”the First Amendment protects a great many instances of speech that is deeply reprehensible. No one wants to study and work in an environment in which tort and crime are the only norms of personal responsibility and behavior. …

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