The AutoAdmit Lawsuit

book16a.jpgEver since the Washington Post exposé about the AutoAdmit discussion board, it has been in a downward tailspin. According to the Washington Post article of March 2007:

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.

Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search.

The woman and two others interviewed by The Washington Post learned from friends that they were the subject of derogatory chats on a widely read message board on AutoAdmit, run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent. The women spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution online.

For excellent background about AutoAdmit, check out these posts (here, here, and here) by our own David Hoffman, the world’s leading scholar of vitriolic law school discussion boards.

A short while ago, Anthony Ciolli (the Penn law student who helped run the board) had his offer of employment rescinded at a law firm.

The latest — a complaint filed against a number of people associated with AutoAdmit by two law students who claim that their “character, intelligence, appearance and sexual lives have been thoroughly trashed by the defendants.” The case is Doe v. Ciolli, 307CV00909 CFD, and the complaint has been filed in the District of Connecticut. The complaint claims the following causes of action: copyright infringement, appropriation of name or likeness, public disclosure of private facts, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

The WSJ blog has more about the story here. According to the WSJ blog:

“It’s bringing the right to protect yourself against offensive words and images into the 21st century,” said David N. Rosen, a New Haven, Conn.-based attorney for the students and a senior research scholar in law at Yale Law to the Law Blog in an interview. “This is the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe,” he said of the postings about the women on AutoAdmit. Rosen is joined by Mark A. Lemley, of counsel at San Francisco litigation boutique Keker & Van Nest and a professor at Stanford Law School who teaches computer and internet law. They are taking the case pro bono. Here, they have posted a notification on the lawsuit on AutoAdmit.

Eric Goldman offers thoughtful observations here. And there’s more info at Above the Law. Eugene Volokh has an interesting post about the case here.

The issues in this case are of great interest to me, as I have a book forthcoming this October called The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale U. Press, Oct. 2007).

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6 Responses

  1. Miriam Cherry says:

    Congrats (a little early) on this new book, Dan! I’ll look forward to it when it is out.

  2. Guest says:

    You have to feel bad for Ciolli. Hi was an admirable goal – to provide a free public forum where participants could speak openly and honestly about any topic (especially law-related topics). It seems strang that merely because he provides a public forum for speech that he should be under any duty to moderate or censor that speech; that would impose upon him fiduciary duties with regards to people he’s never met.

    Additionally, due to the inherently difficult nature of internet moderation (there are an awful lot of ‘offensive’ posts on many, many discussion boards), Ciolli would need a team of mods working nearly round-the-clock. Clearly such a system would stifle the free flow of information on the board. First, it be incredibly difficult for Ciolli (or anyone else) to promulgate clear, unambiguous rules w/r/t which speech should be moderated (unprotected) and which should not. If the site owners could face potential liability, this would naturally lead to a suppression of a great deal more speech than necessary. Furthermore, it would create a situation where the protection of participants’ speech would be at the whim of whatever moderators were on the clock at that given time. Disagree with a mod, and face the possibility of having your posts deleted.

    The moderated system is in place at another popular law school discussion site, The discussions on that site are not nearly as rich and in depth, and as a result the amount of information that pre-laws, current students, and practicing attys can glean from the site is almost de minimis. Who wants to post on a site where one can be censored for disagreeing with a mod that a 3.x gpa will not get one an offer at firm y? What’s the use?

    Autoadmit was and is filthy; its posters make nasty, sometimes defamatory contents. This is true. But in terms of the amount of law school related information, the site is second to none, and it’s efforts to centralize such info is unprecedented and commendable. Ciolli has provided a great service to law students and pre-laws; it would be an injustice if he were to face legal liability because he failed to act like anyone’s mother.

  3. Guest #2 says:

    Autoadmit mostly has misinformation, which is why most law students I know use or one of the other prelaw sites that have moderators. As to Ciolli, it seems that whenever someone complained to him that they were being defamed or threatened with rape, he blew them off. What goes around comes around.

  4. WAL says:

    Autoadmit can be very crass and incredibly offensive, but it was miles ahead of in providing useful information. It’s on where I’ve seen actual arguments with posters disputing the fact a person will have an incredibly hard time finding a job from a fourth tier school. It is on lawschooldiscussion where somebody will invariably tell an applicant not to give up hope and try applying to schools they have no chance of getting into. Doing that may keep people’s feelings from getting hurt in the short-run, but I prefer the AutoAdmit approach where you can expect people to be blunt and, if they aren’t, other posters to come in, say it’s bull, and correct them.

    AutoAdmit also has grown to the point where it has some posters who are already in private practice and are able to talk about firms and, when I posted there (I’ll admit it’s been awhile), was probably a better place than any I had available to me in law school or on the internet to get a political debate going (not just a discussion, where you limited yourself to what won’t anger the professor, but a real full-fledged debate).

    I’ll admit Ciolli and Cohen are probably dicks for not just deleting the freakin’ thread, but as a source of information during law school AutoAdmit easily outdid any of its competitors.

  5. Michael Lee says:

    Viva la AutoAdmit.

    I was sued a few years ago for defamation. The suit was little more than opportunistic money grab.

    I prevailed of course, but wasted three years of my life doing so.

    The standard of review for defamation should be very rigid. Not because it is a trumped up tort but because most of the complaints are trumped up.

    Michael Lee

  6. Michael Lee says:

    Viva la AutoAdmit.

    I was sued a few years ago for defamation. The suit was little more than opportunistic money grab.

    I prevailed of course, but wasted three years of my life doing so.

    The standard of review for defamation should be very rigid. Not because it is a trumped up tort but because most of the complaints are trumped up.

    Michael Lee