Law students reveal identity of AutoAdmit defendant in new complaint

Two female Yale Law School students who were smeared on the Web forum AutoAdmit in 2005 finally know whom they’re suing for defamation — more than a year after they first filed.

An amended complaint filed by the two women Tuesday named one defendant, Matthew C. Ryan, a senior math major at the University of Texas, Austin. The other 38 commenters being sued retained their pseudonyms.

Several more of those commenters have also been unmasked, said Mark Lemley, a Stanford law professor who is representing the two Yale students. Lemley said he is negotiating with the others to settle out of court. If those talks fail, they, too, will be outed, he said.

It is not yet clear how or whether Ryan knew the students, who are unnamed in the lawsuit. Ryan has not responded to a phone message or an e-mail seeking comment. Both of the Yale Law students declined to comment.

Ryan’s identity was discovered through subpoenas issued six months ago against his Internet service provider, which traced the comments he posted anonymously on the online legal community AutoAdmit using the screen name “:D”.

Against all 39 commenters, the charges include libel, false light and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

Ryan, specifically, has been named for several sexually explicit and derogatory posts directed at one of the women, including sexual and anti-Semitic slurs and vulgar references to her breasts.

While those comments may be sufficiently nasty, proving them illegal could be a tougher sell, said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Speech that is purely pejorative, no matter how offensive, cannot be libelous, Volokh said. Defamatory speech has to present some kind of false allegation, he said.

One post, which alleges one of the women has herpes, could toe that line, he said. Then the question becomes a matter of context. A libelous statement has to be believable, he said, not simply hyperbolic or metaphorical.

That call, Volokh said, is up to a jury to make.

Now that a defendant has been named, a jury may soon have just such an opportunity. Moving to trial and winning damages would have been impossible if the defendants’ identities had remained unknown, Lemley said.

“The case can now proceed,” he said.

The women are seeking at least $245,400 in damages.

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