TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Internet Defamation Suit Tests Online Anonymity

Internet Defamation Suit Tests Online Anonymity

Jason Szep, Reuters (
Sat, 16 Jun 2007 10:59:16 -0500

By Jason Szep

It bills itself as the world's "most prestigious college discussion
board," giving a glimpse into law school admissions policies,
post-graduate social networking and the hiring practices of major law

But the AudoAdmit site, widely used by law students for information on
schools and firms, is also known as a venue for racist and sexist
remarks and career-damaging rumors.

Now it's at the heart of a defamation lawsuit that legal experts say
could test the anonymity of the Internet.

After facing lewd comments and threats by posters, two women at Yale
Law School filed a suit on June 8 in U.S. District Court in New Haven,
Connecticut, that includes subpoenas for 28 anonymous users of the
site, which has generated more than 7 million posts since 2004.

According to court documents, a user on the site named "STANFORDtroll"
began a thread in 2005 seeking to warn Yale students about one of the
women in the suit, entitled "Stupid Bitch to Enter Yale Law." Another
threatened to rape and sodomize her, the documents said.

The plaintiff, a respected Stanford University graduate identified
only as "Doe I" in the lawsuit, learned of the Internet attack in the
summer of 2005 before moving to Yale in Connecticut. The posts
gradually became more menacing.

Some posts made false claims about her academic record and urged users
to warn law firms, or accused her of bribing Yale officials to gain
admission and of forming a lesbian relationship with a Yale
administrator, the court papers said.

The plaintiff said she believes the harassing remarks, which lasted
nearly two years, cost her an important summer internship. After
interviewing with 16 firms, she received only four call-backs and
ultimately had zero offers -- a result considered unusual given her

Another woman, identified as Doe II, endured similar attacks. The two,
who say they suffered substantial "psychological and economic injury,"
also sued a former manager of the site because he refused to remove
disparaging messages. The manager had cited free-speech protections.


"The harassment they were subjected to was quite grotesque," said
Brian Leiter, a professor at University of Texas Law School. "Any
judge who looks at this is going to be really shocked, and
particularly shocked because these appear to be law students."

The suit is being watched closely to see if the posters are unmasked,
a step that could make anonymous chat room users more circumspect. It
also underlines the growing difficulty of protecting reputations
online as the Web is used increasingly to screen prospective employees
and romantic partners.

"They can't hide behind anonymity while they are saying these
scurrilous and menacing things," said Eugene Volokh, a professor of
law at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He said the site was not liable under federal protections that are
more lenient on Web sites than TV and newspapers. Prosecuting the
manager could also be difficult because he did not write the posts,
Volokh added. But the anonymous posters look liable and their careers
could be jeopardized, he said.

"This ought to be a warning to be people that if you say things that
are not just rude but arguably libelous and potentially threatening
and perhaps actionable on those grounds then their identity might be
unmasked," he said.

Finding and identifying the posters -- including one called "The
Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah" -- could be tough but is not
impossible. The process involves subpoenas issued to Internet Service
Providers for records, and then more subpoenas to companies,
institutions or people identified on those records.

"I've said in my blog the most vile posters on that board are two
subpoenas away from being outed," said Leiter. "This led to much
amusement by the anonymous posters on the board.

"But they are about to find out that this is how it works."

Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.

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