AutoAdmit Kerfuffle Leads to Lawsuit

The WSJ Law Blog is really turning out to be a wonderful thing in the world of trivial legal news. Here is a detailed post about a lawsuit filed in Connecticut arising from the AutoAdmit scandal, including a copy of the complaint and the background of the controversy. Law Student Jackass All-Star Anthony Ciolli is named as a defendant for his role in administering the site. The users behind the offending posts are also named as defendants but identified only by their screen names, making for one of the silliest captions I've ever seen. The plaintiffs are two female Yale law students who claim that they've suffered a mountain of horrible injuries arising from vicious posts about them on the forums.

One final fun fact is that the plaintiffs' legal team, which is apparently working pro bono, includes IP superstar and filthy turncoat Mark Lemley, who knows a good bag of Doritos when he sees one.

This case raises a number of interesting legal issues, which are being bandied about on other blogs as I write this. Computer law isn't my forte, but there are clearly some statutory immunity issues regarding Ciolli himself. As for liability on the part of the users, there's the usual discomfort regarding the punishment of speech, particularly in the form of opinions, though of course once the speech treads into certain murky territories courts are a little more willing to impose liability.

Another interesting issue regarding the users is whether the plaintiffs will be able to identify them, both in terms of the practicalities of tracking them down by IP address (or whatever) and being able to legally force the disclosure of their names through discovery. Again, these are topics that I don't know a great deal about off the top of my head, but I know enough to know that they're going to be things over which the lawyers fight vigorously.

Turning to the cultural aspects of the scandal in terms of the legal profession as a whole, two things come to mind. First, one of the plaintiffs claims that the forum posts negatively impacted her employment opportunities, in particular preventing her from landing a desirable summer associate position. This claim strikes me as specious. I would hope that legal employers would know not to pay attention to what a bunch of anonymous Internet trolls have to say about an applicant, particularly if the credentials are otherwise in line. The black box of legal recruiting also makes this claim extremely hard to prove, and the employers in question will likely fight tooth and nail to avoid having to disclose the reasons behind their decisions regarding this particular plaintiff. This could also backfire on the plaintiff, of course, if it turns out that the employers had other reasons for not hiring her and those reasons came out during discovery.

Secondly, turning back to the concept of identifying the users, I think that would be a good thing, and perhaps the only productive thing to come out of the suit. Personally, I still get queasy about the idea of punishing offensive speech, even speech aimed at a particular private individual for no legitimate reason. And at bottom, many of the posts identified in the complaint are nothing more than crude, idiotic comments about the plaintiffs (the things that bleed over into threats and other stalkerish things, of course, are a somewhat different story). That being said, engaging in this type of speech is distasteful and bespeaks striking deficits of maturity and professionalism, and the legal community would benefit from having these idiots exposed. The proper punishment for most of these comments is public and professional obloquy rather than legal sanctions. This would also, ultimately, amount to a somewhat more poetic resolution to the controversy. The users were clearly trying to torpedo the academic and professional aspirations of the plaintiffs. The fact that they chose to do this through vicious anonymous Internet postings speaks volumes about their own qualifications, in terms of ethics, civility and common sense.

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This page contains a single entry by hb published on June 13, 2007 11:41 AM.

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