Women File Suit to Defend Online Reputation Two Yale Law School students have filed a lawsuit over anonymous online postings which they say harmed their reputations and may have cost them job opportunities. The people running the Web site refuse to remove the postings, citing free speech.
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Women File Suit to Defend Online Reputation

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Women File Suit to Defend Online Reputation


Women File Suit to Defend Online Reputation

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FRANK LANGFITT: The Web site is called AutoAdmit. It's a popular law school discussion board anyone can access. But one corner of the site has become a virtual bathroom wall, where people savage female students in anonymous rants. Jill Filipovic is a third year law student at New York University. She's not among those suing, but she's felt the wrath of AutoAdmit.

JILL FILIPOVIC: They started linking it to my pictures, posting, you know, my AOL screen name. You know, then that sort of got turned into a conversation about what I look like and whether or not they would have sex with me and, which, you know, then turned into conversations about my politics. And that's when things got, you know, a little bit more, I guess, harassing with their comments about sexually assaulting me.

LANGFITT: The attacks became so harsh, Filipovic says, she started skipping classes.

FILIPOVIC: You know, if you read something about yourself, about how somebody sat next to you in events and, you know, then there's a whole slew of comments after that, all talking about what you look like and, you know, making really disparaging comments about you and talking about how, you know, they want to do violence to you. I mean, so, you know, it's hard to get up the next morning and go to class and wonder if you're sitting next to that person.

LANGFITT: This month, the two Yale students filed a defamation suit regarding AutoAdmit. The women weren't named in the suit to protect their privacy. And because no one disputes that they were attacked on the Internet, NPR isn't naming them either. Many of the comments about the women are so filthy we can't say them on the air. But here are some of the cleaner ones. One of the plaintiffs is called, quote, "a stupid Jew bitch." Another postings says, quote, "I hope she gets raped and dies."

If you search the women's names on Google, things like this come up in the initial results. One plaintiff says the comments cost her a summer job at a law firm. She says she had 16 interviews, four callbacks, but no offers. AutoAdmit could be to blame. But some legal scholars actually doubt it. Eugene Volokh teaches at UCLA Law School.

EUGENE VOLOKH: Given the amount of time and money that law firms spent wooing top Yale law students, you can't imagine the hiring partners saying, no, I'm just going to ignore this person because some guys online are saying nasty things about her.

LANGFITT: The suit accuses the Web site's former moderator, Anthony Ciolli, of defamation. But under U.S. Internet law, people generally can't be held liable for something someone else writes on their Web site. The people who wrote the anonymous messages might be held liable if anyone can figure out who they are. Brian Leiter teaches law at the University of Texas at Austin. He says the plaintiffs' best bet might be to find out their identities and post their names on the Internet.

BRIAN LEITER: And the marketplace would exact its own penalties on them because, obviously, no respectable legal employer wants to be associated with someone who thinks it's funny to threaten to rape female law students.

LANGFITT: Ciolli, who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, did not respond to request for comment. But Jarret Cohen, the Web site's founder, did. Cohen, who is not named in the suit, says he deplores the attacks on the women. But he insists that deleting offensive posts is a slippery slope that can lead to broader censorship. He also says he doesn't have time to get rid of every nasty message on a constantly changing discussion site with eight million posts.

JARRET COHEN: I didn't always we see that it would be a productive use of my time to be constantly getting into these endless cycles of trying to remove content.

LANGFITT: Do you think you have any responsibility for what's posted at this site?

COHEN: I don't know. It's actually a really tough question that I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about.

LANGFITT: So far, the only career that has clearly suffered from the Web site is that of Anthony Ciolli, the former moderator. When a firm that offered him a job found out about AutoAdmit, it rescinded the offer. Cohen says Ciolli's having a hard time finding other work.

COHEN: It seems as if his name, right now, is radioactive. And I think the way these big law firms look at it is, why hire somebody who has this baggage?

LANGFITT: And the women who've been targeted on AutoAdmit may see some justice in that.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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