Law students sue authors of online posts

“Dean_Harold_Koh” — not to be confused with Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh — and 38 other pseudonymous users of an Internet message board have been sued by two Yale Law School students in connection with defamatory comments on the message board for people in the legal community.

The two female students first pursued legal action in June against the 39 post authors as well as initial defendant Anthony Ciolli, a former employee of the Web forum AutoAdmit. But the plaintiffs revised their complaint Friday, deciding not to name Ciolli as a defendant.

Instead, the two students filed suit against the authors of the posts because of what the plaintiffs allege are sexually explicit and derogatory posts made on the site between 2005 and early this year, although it is not clear the plaintiffs’ lawyers know the identities of the 39 defendants. Three female Yale law students were the subjects of the posts, but only two have filed suit.

AutoAdmit, which calls itself “the most prestigious law school discussion board in the world,” features content — ranging from threads about law school admissions to life at law firms — aimed at those interested in the world of law.

Koh declined to comment this week beyond his previous statements on the subject in March, in which he decried the hurtful and indecent nature of the posts.

The postings included the Law School students’ full names, and some posts had links to pictures of the students. Neither of the law students is identified by name in the complaint.

The suit claims the defendants’ posts were defamatory, emotionally distressing and infringed on copyright because they included photos of one of the women on the Internet, among other allegations.

Their suit asks for unspecified actual and special damages from the defendants, in addition to punitive damages of at least $245,400.

Jennifer Broxmeyer LAW ’09, president of Yale Law Women, and Sumon Dantiki LAW ’09 both said they were disturbed that the inclusion of sensitive information in some of the AutoAdmit posts — including what classes the students took and pictures of them at the gym — indicated that students at Yale Law School might have made some of the posts.

But while the posts may have been damaging to the students — one woman reported losing job offers because of employers who saw the AutoAdmit postings in search-engine results for her name — many legal scholars have said the quest for justice against the posters is no simple task.

Daniel Solove LAW ’97, a law professor at The George Washington University whose recent book, “The Future of Reputation,” is about Internet privacy, said any lawsuit against AutoAdmit or its administrators would be difficult to win because of legal protections for Web site operators.

Solove and Law School lecturer Eddan Katz both said the protections for Internet administrators are strong in large part because it is so difficult for operators to monitor content on their own Web sites.

Neither AutoAdmit nor its founder, insurance agent Jarret Cohen, has ever been named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Cohen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Solove said the suit against the people behind the posts themselves could be legally supportable if a judge issued subpoenas to Internet service providers for the posters’ real identities based on unique computer addresses known as IP addresses.

But Katz said it could be difficult to track down the posters if the people they represent used public computers or alternated IP addresses. In addition, he said, IP addresses would only be available if AutoAdmit logged its users’ addresses.

Ciolli’s lawyer, Marc Randazza, said while the revised complaint does not list defendants’ real names, the plaintiffs’ lawyers might have already obtained that information.

“They might have a reason for doing this,” Randazza said. “They may know the posters’ identities and be choosing not to reveal that information right now.”

David Rosen LAW ’69 — a senior research scholar at Yale Law School and one of the students’ lawyers — and Stanford Law School professor Mark Lemley, the plaintiffs’ other lawyer, declined comment for this article.

Ciolli, AutoAdmit’s former chief educational director, said there was no basis for his initial inclusion as a defendant.

He said he never had the authority to remove posts from AutoAdmit and that he himself was the subject of several disparaging remarks on the site.

“Posters should exercise civility, maturity and good judgment,” Ciolli said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, a very select few did not, and I despise them for it.”

Ciolli said he thinks he lost his job at a large law firm because of the controversy surrounding AutoAdmit.

The two plaintiffs, as well as the third female law student who has not filed suit, declined to comment for this article.

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