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AutoAdmit

Eugene Volokh and Scott Greenfield worry that free speech could be the loser from a buzz of law school interest in the topic of “cyber-stalking” or “cyber-harassment” — rather broadly couched in one description to include law students’ “using websites to make outrageous gender– or race-specific comments.” Volokh:

I’m sure that most backers of these restrictions would stress that of course they’re not trying to shut down substantive debate, only incivility. But once viewpoint-based restrictions are accepted, once speech can be suppressed because it’s “outrageous” or “smearing,” it’s pretty hard to have much confidence that substantive (but to some “outrageous”) discussion of ideas will remain untouched; and even if actual punishments for such speech are rare, the risk of punishment may powerfully deter the substantive debate as well as the nonsubstantive smears (of which I agree there is plenty). That has certainly been the experience with “civility codes” at university campuses, and governmentally coerced restrictions on “harassment” in workplaces.

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Above the Law and Ann Althouse cover the end of a much-watched lawsuit filed by Yale students over nasty personal comments on a well-known message board.

February 19 roundup

by Walter Olson on February 19, 2009

  • Surprising origins of federal corruption probe that tripped up Luzerne County, Pa. judges who were getting kickbacks on juvenile detention referrals: insurers had noted local pattern of high car-crash arbitration sums and sniffed collusion between judges and plaintiff’s counsel [Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Legal Intelligencer] Court administrator pleads to theft [Times Leader] Judge Ciavarella had secret probation parole program [PAHomepage]
  • We get accolades: “Overlawyered.com has a new look. Great new format, same good stuff,” writes ex-securities lawyer Christopher Fountain, whose real estate blog I’m always recommending to people even if they live nowhere near his turf of Greenwich, Ct. [For What It's Worth]
  • “Fla. Jury Awards $8M to Family of Dead Smoker in Philip Morris Case” [ABA Journal; for more on the complicated background of the Engle case, which renders Florida a unique environment for tobacco litigation, start here]
  • Scott Greenfield vs. Ann Bartow vs. Marc Randazza on the AutoAdmit online-bathroom-scrawl litigation, all in turn playing off a David Margolick piece in Portfolio;
  • Eric Turkewitz continues his investigations of online solicitation by lawyers following the Buffalo crash of Continental Flight #3407 [NY Personal Injury Law Blog, Mon. and Tues. posts; earlier]
  • One vital element of trial management: keep track of how many jurors there are [Anne Reed, Deliberations]
  • Public Citizen vs. public health: Sidney Wolfe may succeed in getting the FDA to ban Darvon, and the bone marrow transplant nurse isn’t happy about that [Dr. Wes, KevinMD, more on Wolfe here]
  • “Baseball Star’s [uninfected] Ex Seeks $15M for Fear of AIDS” [OnPoint News, WaPo, New York Mets star Roberto Alomar]

The WSJ Law Blog reports that the two Yale Law women suing AutoAdmit/XOXOHTH posters are “seeking to resolve their claims against these defendants” without amending the complaint to name their identities, obtained over the course of a variety of subpoenas.  Thus, the recent amended complaint named only a single AutoAdmit poster, Matthew C. Ryan, who had apparently refused to settle–perhaps because while Ryan’s comments were obnoxious, they were not legally actionable.

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it historically the case that someone who says “Pay me money or I will file a lawsuit and issue press releases that reveal private facts you find to be embarrassing” guilty of blackmail or extortion in other contexts?  What distinguishes this case–especially when the underlying allegations are so legally flimsy?

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Assuming, that is, they aren’t brought down by the legal costs before ever getting a resolution (Christopher J. Boggs, “Blogs Can Get Insurance Clients ‘SLAPP’ed!”, Insurance Journal, Jul. 14, via Instapundit who got it from Robert Cox, Media Bloggers Association).

In other news of online speech and liability: “Anonymous commenting may have just gotten a little less anonymous. With the help of a subpoena issued six months ago, attorneys for two Yale Law School students have succeeded in unmasking several anonymous users of the Web forum AutoAdmit whom the women are suing for defamation.” (Isaac Amsdorf, “Lawyers to name defendants in AutoAdmit case”, Yale Daily News, Jul. 31, via Volokh).

As an online phenomenon, JuicyCampus.com sounds more than a little familiar to those who followed the AutoAdmit/XOXOXTH controversy: message boards open to bathroom-graffiti anonymous posts about named fellow students. The difference this time is that the attorneys general of New Jersey and Connecticut have jumped in with legal action apparently premised on the unusual, and expansible, legal theory that the site violates consumer fraud statutes by not enforcing its own announced ground rules on posting, or at least principles that it “suggests” it will follow. (ABA Journal and again; Volokh).

Althouse on AutoAdmit

by Walter Olson on March 8, 2008

Advice to ponder (Mar. 6):

George Harrison once sang: “You serve me and I’ll serve you/Swing your partners, all get screwed/Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine/Get together, and we could have a bad time.”

If you sue me, I’m going to do my best to figure out how I can sue you. You want to think about that dynamic before you sue somebody. …

The decision to file a lawsuit is a momentous one. Think hard and think many steps ahead before you bring the courts into your life. Don’t sue angry.

More on the new suit filed by Anthony Ciolli, who had been named as a defendant in the earlier suit: Above the Law. Earlier on AutoAdmit/Xoxohth: Jun. 15 and Oct. 29, 2007.

You may recall that a couple of Yale Law School students sued the administrator of a law-school bulletin board because they blamed silly gossip about them on the board for costing them job offers. (The administrator himself lost his job offer in response to the uproar.) If so, how come their Yale Law classmate Elizabeth Wurtzel—whose topless photos decorate the Internet, who wrote about her own cocaine and Ritalin addictions, and who was fired from a newspaper for plagiarism—was able to get a job offer from WilmerHale? More on Wurtzel: Taylor; Lat; Bonin, all talking about this NY Times piece. Previous skepticism about the lawsuit: Ilya Somin.

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The controversy over bathroom-graffiti postings at the law student site Autoadmit/xoxohth.com (May 3, May 20) has now developed into litigation:

two [unnamed] female Yale Law School students have sued Anthony Ciolli, the Web site’s former “chief educational director,” and more than two dozen others who allegedly used pseudonyms and posted the students’ photos as well as defamatory and threatening remarks about them on the online law-school discussion forum.

(Amir Efrati, WSJ Law Blog, Jun. 12). Lawprofs David N. Rosen (Yale) and Mark A. Lemley (Stanford) are assisting the plaintiffs, and Rosen told the WSJ Law Blog in an interview that the case was about “bringing the right to protect yourself against offensive words and images into the 21st century,” calling the postings “the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe.” Discussion: Eugene Volokh, Ann Althouse , Glenn Reynolds, David Lat, Patterico.

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We’ve extensively covered the various fair-housing complaints against Craiglist (Aug. 10, 2005; Feb. 9, Feb. 20, Mar. 6, Jun. 28, Dec. 1, 2006) for that service’s hosting ads for housing and roommates that fall afoul of non-discrimination laws—it’s technically illegal for a woman to say that she’s looking for another woman to share her apartment with, much less a co-religionist or someone without kids. We somehow missed the Santa Clara and San Diego lawsuits against Roommates.com over the same issue. While a district threw out the case, an appeal went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and that was that: the three judges, Kozinski, Reinhardt, and Ikuta, wrote three separate opinions, with two of them deciding that there was enough for a suit to go forward on the grounds that there may be a cause of action under the Fair Housing Act because Roommate.com makes it easier for their users to express discriminatory preferences by using questionnaires that are then translated into searchable advertisements, thus supposedly running outside the Communications Decency Act’s immunity provision by being an “information content provider” because it is “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of [the] information”:

“By categorizing, channeling and limiting the distribution of users’ profiles, Roommate provides an additional layer of information that it is “responsible” at least “in part” for creating or developing.”

Worse, Judge Kozinski’s opinion issues irrelevant dicta, apparently aimed at a suit not being litigated before him:

Imagine, for example, www.harrassthem.com with the slogan “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.” A visitor to this Web site would be encouraged to provide private, sensitive and/or defamatory information about others — all to be posted online for a fee.

Kozinski posits that this site—plainly based on dontdatehimgirl.com (Apr. 9 and links therein)—would also flunk the CDA protection. (Cal Law reporter/blogger Brian McDonough notes this passage, but apparently thinks it’s just a joke and thus misses its significance.) The administrators of Autoadmit/xoxohth.com (May 3) might also be concerned about this dicta. (Rebecca Tushnet makes this point independently.)

This substantial narrowing of § 230(c) protections is also bad because it now means that a number of Internet sites that were plainly protected before no longer have unambiguous protection, a problem exacerbated by the lack of a clear majority opinion. Creative lawyering can argue that these websites might be within Fair Housing Counsel‘s fact-driven exception to the CDA exception, and thus get past the motion-to-dismiss stage, forcing defendants into expensive legal proceedings.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Volokh; Eric Goldman; Adam Liptak @ NYT; Slashdot; Laura Quilter; Aaron Perzanowski; Lillian Edwards; The Register. Joe Gratz has purchased harassthem.com.

Volokh separately argues the underlying laws are unconstitutional as applied to roommates.

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We’ll agree: the posters at the AutoAdmit/Xoxohth board—like commenters on DailyKos, Google and Yahoo! boards, Legal Underground, The Volokh Conspiracy, and even Overlawyered—can be distasteful or obnoxious, and all the more so because in Xoxohth’s case because the board is largely unmoderated. Posters have engaged in racial slurs and misogynist remarks; they are notorious for threads where posters evaluate the looks of female attorneys and law students. (Even my girlfriend was the subject of a brief thread.) The site has recently had negative publicity from a Yale Law student who blames a thread there for an inability to find a job and from a Boalt Law student who is facing expulsion because he briefly posted to AutoAdmit and quickly withdrew a poor-taste-joking threat of a Virginia-Tech-copycat at Hastings that resulted in the latter school being shut down for a day.

A Penn Law student who was an administrator on the site resigned in response to some of the shenanigans on the board in March. The WSJ Law Blog is reporting today that that was not enough for his future employer, Boston law firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, which withdrew its job offer to Anthony Ciolli, who (to my knowledge) is not accused of making any objectionable remarks himself. Now, an employer can reasonably decide that it does not wish to associate with a controversial employee (though the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act imposes on private employment relationships in some circumstances what are in most other states thought of as constitutional speech and freedom-of-association protections applicable only to governmental relationships, which may mean that Ciolli has a cause of action against the firm).

But the decision of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge to find Ciolli’s association with the AutoAdmit board disqualifying is curious if only because one of the attorneys at the same office of the law firm has been indicted for felony homicide for allegedly killing a man in an auto accident while driving under the influence of sleeping pills. (Three and a half pills were missing from a three-hour-old Ambien prescription, and the attorney allegedly admits “tasting” them.) Now, that attorney is entitled to a presumption of innocence in his criminal trial (he pled not guilty in the summer of 2006, a motion to dismiss was denied later that year, and I cannot find any reference to the current status of his case). But if you ever wanted to know how damning it is in the modern legal community to be associated with a controversial website accused of misogyny, you now have an answer: it’s worse than being accused of killing someone.

More blogosphere commentary: Concurring Opinions; Above the Law.

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Slow typist sues law school

by Walter Olson on January 27, 2007

According to Adrian Zachariasewycz, a/k/a Adrian Zack, of Woodlyn, Pa., some exams given at the University of Michigan Law School reward fast typists with a chance at higher scores. So he’ll see school administrators in court, in a pro se lawsuit that also names as a defendant the Wilmington, Del. law firm of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell, where his associate’s gig didn’t work out. He’s suing two of the law school’s career counselors individually for alleged bad advice, too. (WSJ law blog, Jan. 26; complaint in PDF format). More: Feb. 5.

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