The Yale Law School community is in the midst of a virtual crash course on the definition of free speech.
Controversial comments about three Yale Law School students, posted anonymously on online message board AutoAdmit, have riled students and administrators at Yale and its peer schools. One of the targeted students told The Washington Post that the content on the Web site — easily accessible when her name is searched on Google — hurt her when it came time to find a summer job. Now Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh, along with deans at the law schools of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, have openly condemned the Web site’s owners and some of its posters for the comments.
The posters identified by name the three students, all of whom are women, and included sometimes sexually explicit personal attacks and links to photographs.
“To have this be the first thing [employers] see can overshadow a lifetime of accomplishments,” Koh said in an interview. “Things that would have been graffiti on a bathroom wall 20 years ago can now be found easily on Google.”
All three targeted women either declined or did not respond to requests for comment.
Koh said the Yale General Counsel’s office has been notified about the Web site but declined to say whether the University would take legal action against it. AutoAdmit is a message board for the discussion of college, graduate and professional school admissions, but it is most popular among law students.
Jarret Cohen, a 23-year-old insurance agent who founded AutoAdmit, said he is willing to work to resolve the issue and has corresponded with some of the affected students via e-mail. When he contacted Koh’s office, he said, he only received a reply from the General Counsel’s office. He blamed ReputationDefender, the company that is representing some of the students and working to get the content about the students removed, for inflating the issue by stirring up media attention to gain publicity for itself. ReputationDefender specializes in protecting its clients’ online privacy.
“I am stuck now, because I would really like to help these girls, but because of this whole PR mess by ReputationDefender, it’s very difficult to do anything,” Cohen said. “Instead of trying to engage me, by using these girls, by offering them pro bono work and using it for publicity, they’ve basically ended up harassing the people from my site.”
But Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender’s CEO, said his company did not aim to publicize the AutoAdmit postings and was contacted by the press. The company is only trying to have the content removed, he said.
“Our clients approached us, not the other way around,” Fertik said. “I don’t want to pick a fight with anyone. We don’t think the site should be shut down.”
Fertik said his company is also representing people who are not Yale students but have grievances with content on the site.
Both ReputationDefender and AutoAdmit have aired their cases on AutoAdmit discussion boards. Cohen said he removed advertisements powered by Google earlier this month after questions from Google about the site’s content.
In letters to their respective student bodies, Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan and Penn Law School Dean Michael Fitts suggested that, if identified, posters could face problems in their future legal careers because of their comments. Although the other owner of the site is currently a law student at Penn, Penn administrators told The Washington Post that they were not in a position to take legal action against him to shut down the site.
Koh said posters and site administrators will not be able to hide behind the claim of free speech to avoid liability for libelous statements made on the site. He said either the owners should police the site more actively or they should not allow users to post anonymously.
“Any student at Yale knows that if you had a physical bulletin board and put things up there, you would be responsible for the content,” he said.
Before Spring Break, Yale Law Women hosted a closed-door meeting where faculty and students of the school discussed the issue. Koh said while the experience has been painful for many, students took away a lot from the meeting.
“It was a very powerful meeting,” he said. “People realized that in this new era of the Internet, there are new ways in which you can be harmed that could never have been anticipated four or five years ago.”