Recently, law schools has been passing around emails regarding a website called AutoAdmit, run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent. The Washington Post also recently did a story on the controversy surrounding this website, which runs a “Top 14 Law School Hottest Female Contest” and contains many sexist, racist, and inappropriate posting on the message boards. This topic is relevant to our discussion on First Amendment issues on the Internet and for post-secondary education and the posts we had last week on ensuring that there is no incriminating information about you on the Internet.
The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as “the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases.
At least one female Yale law student believes that she is a victim of reputation maligning from derogatory chats on AutoAdmit, and believes that there is a linkage to her inability to get a single law firm offer for the summer. The chats sometimes include photos taken from women's Facebook pages, and in the Yale student's case, one person threatened to sexually violate her. Another participant claimed to be the student, making it appear that she was taking part in the discussion. The woman e-mailed the site's administrators and asked them to remove the material. She said she received no response. Then she tried contacting Google, which simply cited its policy that the Web site's administrator must remove the material to clear out the search results. In another comment, a user said a particular woman had no right to ask that the threads be removed. "If we want to objectify, criticize and [expletive] on [expletive] like her, we should be able to." In another posting, a participant rejected the idea that photos be removed on moral grounds: "We're lawyers and lawyers-in-training, dude. Of course we follow the law, not morals."
Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site -- with links posted on AutoAdmit chats -- to select the "hottest" female law student at "Top 14" law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.
Many of these derogatory comments can show up through the Internet via a simple Google search. Employers, including law firms, frequently do Google searches as part of due diligence checks on prospective employees. According to a December survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy research organization, roughly half of U.S. hiring officials use the Internet in vetting job applications. About one-third of the searches yielded content used to deny a job, the survey said.
The trend has even spawned a new service, ReputationDefender, whose mission is to search for damaging content online and destroy it on behalf of clients. Generally, the law exempts site operators from liability for the content posted by others, though it does not prevent them from removing offensive items. ReputationDefender is launching a campaign to get AutoAdmit to cleanse its site and encourage law schools to adopt a professional conduct code for students at http://www.reputationdefender.com/campaign_petition.php.
The site's founder, Jarret Cohen, the insurance agent, said the site merely provides a forum for free speech and cite First Amendment ideas. They said the success of the site's message boards -- they claim 800,000 to 1 million unique visitors a month -- owes to its free, anonymous exchange of ideas. "I definitely don't agree with a lot of the conduct on the board," Ciolli said in an interview. But, he said, only Cohen, who created the message board, has authority to have the comments removed. Cohen, in a separate interview, said he will not "selectively remove" offensive comments, and that when he has attempted to do so, he was threatened with litigation for "perceived inconsistencies.” Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the "Top 14" for privacy concerns, Cohen said. "I think we deserve a golden star for what we did," Cohen said. The two men said that some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace. Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them."
UPenn officials said they have known about the site and the complaints for two years but have no legal grounds to act against it because the site is not operated with school resources. One woman e-mailed the University of Pennsylvania Law School associate dean, Gary Clinton, in February to ask for his help in persuading Ciolli remove the offensive threads. Clinton told her that since he became aware of AutoAdmit two years ago, he has had "numerous conversations about it" with Penn officials. "I've learned that there appears to be little legal recourse that we have as an institution," he wrote. He said he has had several conversations with Ciolli and has "pointed out time and again how hurtful these ad hominem attacks can be to individuals, and have asked him to delete threads." The effort, he noted, "has been largely unsuccessful." Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and free speech advocacy group, said anonymous cyber-writers can be sued for defamation. A judge can require a Web site host or operator to disclose a user's identifying information. Also, he said, the Internet allows those who feel slandered to put forth their own point of view. "The cure to bad speech is more speech," he said.
The information in this post was abridged from the article “Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web” at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/06/AR2007030602705.html.
I'm not surprised to find that the two co-owners of this website cited First Amendment ideas to defend the ability of others to not only post insightful information, but a lot of derogatory, lewd, and obscene information on their website. While it may be true only a fraction of the total posts on AutoAdmit are derogatory and demeaning to other students, it only takes one post to ruin an individual's reputation and adversely impact them. I find it hard to believe that the co-owners of the website were seriously threatening by litigation if they decided to selectively remove offensive posts. Most of the material we have covered in class indicates that Cohen and Ciolli would be able to remove the posts without facing any serious legal consequences because they are privately-run site, and it is in their discretion to remove whatever they wish. It's true that the First Amendment allows negative and offensive speech to be heard, but it is generally limited in how it can hurt and interfere with other people's rights. I don't agree with the co-owners that moderating the board for offensive comments that are sexist and racist would have a chilling effect on the message board other than preventing speech that does not really serve a positive purpose or spur on useful dialogue (low-value speech).
Is it true that others would not as much “fun” if these offensive comments were removed or discouraged, or the posters could not be anonymous? Yes. However, while I agree that the posters should be allowed to maintain anonymity for posting concerns, criticisms, or engaging in debates that are of high-value, the problem with this website is that the derogatory statements they are making single out other individuals that can be harmed by their offensive posts. That someone can pull up a demeaning statement on a student via a simple Google search that can destroy their reputation or prospective job offers is troubling, particularly if the information is inaccurate or simply unrelated to their ability to perform a job well, and is simply distasteful (e.g. a picture of a student in revealing clothing or holding a beer bottle, or false information about a student's promiscuity). Negative information always strikes a greater impression than positive information.
Furthermore, while some people can be sued for defamation or slander, I'm unclear whether or not you can be sued for simply submitting a female law student to be part of the Top 14 contest. While the contest itself is done in poor taste, is sexist, and objectifies women, some person can argue that they submitted the female law student as a compliment to her looks, and that the pictures they took to post for the contest were taken from the female law student's own social networking page. I find it sad that the article cites the two owners of the website implying that the female law students don't have a right to be angry about being objectified by pointing fingers back at the women for posting their pictures on Facebook (basically claiming that the women were “asking for it” in some ways). The pictures the female law students could have been posted for reasons other than to be objectified, or posted by other people (and sometimes without their knowledge). While malice is easy to prove in this case, it would not really be considered defamation because the statements aren't false, per se. The two co-owners should have definitely taken action with the posts that have threatened to assault the female law student, however, as that may be perceived as a true threat.
This situation also points out a new dilemma that has been arising: addressing free speech made by students online but off-campus and on websites not run by the school. I have always thought that post-secondary students have been rightfully given more leeway in their First Amendment rights. However, in this case, where the facts are against my personal biases, I find it frustrating that UPenn cannot do much to remove the offensive threads from AutoAdmit (although even if the website was run on school resources and shut down by UPenn, the two co-owners would just find another private hosting site). The problem is while UPenn is not sponsoring the website and school officials seem to have attempted to point out the negative effects of Ciolli's website on other students, UPenn school administrators are also gaining a poor reputation. Some of the petitions and emails that I have seen floating around address UPenn's law school dean, and I can foresee that if even the dean of UPenn's law school accurately states that he has no control over Ciolli or the website, many students might consider the dean to be avoiding any responsibility for the issue (yes, even by law students who purportedly know the law).
Also, there has been a rise of cases recently with primary and secondary school students posting comments and pictures that either threaten violence or are derogatory towards other students and teachers on their personal websites. Post-Columbine, these threats are being taken more seriously (and rightfully so), although it does cut to the heart of the matter of whether or not student expression should be curtailed. It is hard to discern what precisely is just teenage angst and what constitutes a real threat, and how much speech can be controlled without creating a situation where students are not allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Finally--for the person who wrote that lawyers only have to follow laws and not their morals clearly hasn't studied or taken the MPREs yet.