Harold Hongju Koh

Dean of Yale Law School condemns ‘despicable’ sexist attacks on students

On March 7, The Washington Post ran a story about several of our students who have been personally targeted on an internet message board. While this message board purports to be about law school and law school admissions, it contains numerous sexist, racist, homophobic and other derogatory comments by anonymous posters. Some of these comments include the names and personal information of our students and other individuals, along with many false and hurtful assertions. The Law School and the University are deeply concerned about this situation and have been working on a variety of fronts to try to assist our own students and others affected by the postings on this website. Such anonymous, personal attacks on individuals are despicable. These malicious attacks, as well as racist, sexist, and homophobic speech, have no place in the Yale Law School community. Those who make these hurtful statements injure us all. We must stand together in speaking out against these indecent and intolerant attacks on our students, and, wherever possible, take action to stop these attacks.

10 Comments

Anna Lorien Nelson

The article Dean Koh addresses is Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web, by Ellen Nakashima. It appeared on the front page of the Washington Post on March 7th. The whole article is worth reading, but I can only excerpt here: She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.
Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search.
The woman and two others interviewed by The Washington Post learned from friends that they were the subject of derogatory chats on a widely read message board on AutoAdmit [which I, Legal Eagle, will not stoop to post to], run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent. The women spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution online.
The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as “the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets’ dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google’s powerful search engine.
* * *
The chats sometimes include photos taken from women’s Facebook pages, and in the Yale student’s case, one person threatened to sexually violate her. Another participant claimed to be the student, making it appear that she was taking part in the discussion.
* * *
“I didn’t understand what I’d done to deserve it,” said the student. “I also felt kind of scared because it was someone in my community who was threatening physical and sexual violence and I didn’t know who.”
The woman e-mailed the site’s administrators and asked them to remove the material. She said she received no response. Then she tried contacting Google, which simply cited its policy that the Web site’s administrator must remove the material to clear out the search results.
* * *
One chat thread included a sexual joke about a female Holocaust victim.
In another comment, a user said a particular woman had no right to ask that the threads be removed. “If we want to objectify, criticize and [expletive] on [expletive] like her, we should be able to.”
In another posting, a participant rejected the idea that photos be removed on moral grounds: “We’re lawyers and lawyers-in-training, dude. Of course we follow the law, not morals.”
* * *
Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site—with links posted on AutoAdmit chats—to select the “hottest” female law student at “Top 14” law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.
“I felt completely objectified,” that woman said. It was, she said, “as if they’re stealing part of my character from me.” The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.
* * *
The two men [site founder Jarret Cohen and his partner, Anthony Ciolli] said that some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace.
Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, “People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them.” http://ms-jd.org/files/images/anna_lorien_nelson_0.thumbnail.jpg Anna Lorien Nelson
2L at Yale Law
Vice President of Ms. JD
[ Read more | Email me ]

Legal Eagle

There are so many things wrong here, where do I start? Blaming the victim. “The two men [site founder Jarret Cohen and his partner, Anthony Ciolli] said that some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites….” Ah, blaming the victim. Just like saying a woman who wears a miniskirt invites the attention of a rapist, right? Cohen and Ciolli should be ashamed to make this argument.
Giving lawyers a bad name. In another posting, a participant rejected the idea that photos be removed on moral grounds: “We’re lawyers and lawyers-in-training, dude. Of course we follow the law, not morals.” Number one, defamation and harassment are not legal. Number two, statements like that give lawyers a bad name. Gross. Grow up, AutoAdmit posters, whoever you are.
Incitement to action is not protected speech. “[One] woman… said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.” This isn’t just harmless speech. It is incitement to action.
Harboring criminals through anonymity. “Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away.” Why don’t we have federal regulation that requires user registration? Why should the Internet be a haven for anonymous criminality in a way that we would never put up with offline? Websites can allow users to post in complete anonymity to each other as long as they follow the law, but why should we allow bottom-feeders like Cohen to sidestep subpoenas by deliberately enabling safe criminal behavior? We should require sites to collect registration information so that if a user violates the law, even under an anonymous screen name, he or she can be prosecuted. I do believe strongly in the First Amendment, of course. Am I thinking this through inadequately?
Identity theft. “Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, “People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them…. [Yet] [a]nother participant claimed to be the student, making it appear that she was taking part in the discussion.” What hypocrisy. Cohen can’t stand on principles, because he doesn’t hold any consistently. Why are anonymous users allowed to shield their own identities but false assume the identities of others? Is there a way we could prosecute this as identity theft?

Michael Krouse

I don’t see the value of a forum that gives cowards the opportunity to post their noxious views and slander our fellow law students.  It’s a joke that these posters hide behind the First Amendment as a way to let them violate basic decency and respect for others, unencumbered by a responsibility to acknowledge authorship.  Without attribution, weak people feel empowered to say things that they are unwilling or unable to defend, at little cost.  Jarret Cohen and Anthony Ciolli are not defending the First Amendment, properly understood, they’re simply giving anonymous losers the chance to vent their social frustration (and probably their awkwardness around women) by lashing out at others.  And ultimately, they’re hoping to make money. 
Because I don’t really see a way to prevent idiots from posting on a public forum, our goal should be to reduce the harm these postings cause.  I would urge everyone to boycott the site and to tell everyone you know to boycott it as well.  A large enough boycott could harm Cohen and Ciolli’s business, and it’s unlikely that anyone will miss the “insights” provided by the legitimate threads.  Another idea is to ask all major law firms to pledge not to conduct Google searches of job applicants.  We can construct a list of firms who agree to abide and then urge our students not to apply to firms who refuse.  If these firms are going to trust us to maintain confidentiality and to act professionally, then they can trust that we will submit our true credentials without having to conduct due diligence.  At the least, we should make sure firms understand that any information they “uncover” is unreliable.

Davon

A law firm that makes hiring (or any other decision) based on noxious anonymous postings would be… ummm… to put it gently, a very stupid recruiter.  Some loser rejected by the girl at a bar could be writing that crap – and you’d be an idiot to give such a posting any weight at all.  Of course, we can never discount the harm that the little nugget of doubt placed in the recruiter’s brain might cause… but, without some corroborating information (or inappropriate photos added to the mix), can’t be that great, me thks…
Besides, you can find plenty of useful and reputable information online through google, so why try to ban it?  If you google someone and see that they have a loud, boorish website or blog or something, then you might want to take that fact into consideration when assessing that person as an applicant.
I assume if you asked any firm whether they take anonymous postings into account, they’d respond with an “of course not” or “its persuasive authority ranks slightly above the writing in a bathroom stall but below an anonymous phone call…”

Anonymous

I'd like to offer a counterpoint to the very valid criticisms that have arisen with regard to autoadmit.com over the past few days. I was, beginning well over a year ago, one of the "victims" of online "libel" originating from that site. Google searches for my name will result in a number of unsavory threads, including "Who will _____ fuck first at [Name of law school]?," "If this doesn't convince you that _____ is ugly…," "_____, why did you have an abortion?," "_____ NUDE PHOTOS," "_____ OF [NAME OF LAW SCHOOL] IS A NIGGER," "_____ fucked her way into [Name of law school]," "_____ let me cum on her titties during sextime," "_____ of [Name of law school] fucked 17 frat boys in one night," "_____ anal sex gangbang," etc. These threads were brought up during my interviews for 1L summer jobs. I point them out only to assure those reading that I am intimately aware of the repercussions, both emotional and professional, of "bad speech" on the Internet.  Such speech is indubitably hurtful. It can have devastating effects for the women (and it is almost exclusively women) at which it is targeted. Nonetheless, I think this is a very opportune time for the law school community to reflect on the appropriateness, and utility, of legal recourse. I believe that the purveyors of autoadmit.com, as contemptible as they may seem, have made a very earnest commitment to the value of unmoderated spaces on the Internet, to providing a forum in which people may articulate their most sinister thoughts, without fear of repercussion. As much as I have at times been deeply hurt by those thoughts, to the extent that I once considered not attending law school because of my "Internet reputation," I continue to believe that there is substantial, intrinsic value in granting people some anonymous social outlet for their innermost angst. It is beyond clear that such leeway often opens the door to cruelty, defamation, and hate speech. What is not clear, and what should be considered carefully, is the balance of positive and negative externalities resulting from such speech, and the best course of action in response.  This evinces, in my mind, a very, very serious debate about what the Internet should be, and how it should relate to the law that we all study. We are, in a sense, confronted with a choice: We can have the Internet mirror the physical world we inhabit, or we can treat it as an exception. We can close off all doors and windows to the abjectness of human nature, the way we do in the physical world, or we can, as we do sometimes with video games, allow it to manifest that which we find most deplorable, in the hope that sometimes people just need to talk it out, as ugly as "it" may be.  The responses of the law school community thusfar seem immanently reasonable. It is a very good idea to confront bad code with good code: to boycott, to protest, to use third-party services to route around bad speech. However, these recourses (which all invoke to some extent, and critically, self-help) are not analogous to legal solutions. I would encourage the law school community (before entertaining any legal notions) to very seriously think about the value of unmoderated speech on the Internet, regardless to some extent of its results. To carefully consider the consequences of a world in which we are absolutely deprived of a ready-made forum in which we can deliberately, and anonymously, air our grievances. To think, for once, that correctness, both factual and political, is not an end in and of itself, but a means to happiness and honesty (sorry to get all philosophical).  To break it down in less pretentious terms: I hate most of what's said on autoadmit.com. I think the fact that it sometimes provides useful advice to pre-law and law students is totally irrelevant. The most salient feature of the site is that it lets EVERYTHING in. And that is, I would argue, an inherently good thing. It's a thing that should be confronted via coding solutions (first- and third-party), sociological solutions (boycott and protest), and professional solutions (cataloging firms that continue to make ludicrous, web-based allegations a source of information). But I also believe that the awful consequences of bad speech should be dealt with in less-than-legal terms, precisely because I believe that it's important to leave some forum TRULY open, and that the Internet is our best shot at that.  I sincerely welcome any comments or questions on this.

Davon

While I still think asking employers to not take into account vulgar anonymous postings online is borderline insulting, maybe one small stopgap thing we could do while we debate other options is create "happy threads" to push down the vulgar postings on google.  So if we all band together and create "_____'s pretty awesome," "_____'s one smart cookie!" etc. and respond and comment… we can make that top the list.  And, of course, any other girls or guys with high google rankings.  Btw, how can this thing be anonymous when you have to log in to post?

Anonymous

Anonymous's post was a good reminder that we should not react to speech we do not like with calls to repress it.  But I hope that people do not hesitate to mobilize support and action around this issue, fearing that this is a battle to limit free speech.  Not all victims of this site are similarly situated; the suffering has taken different forms.  Some speech has left the realm of the free and legal and become malicious harassment, defamation, and threats.  Saying things behind a shield of anonymity does not make illegal actions legal.  Furthermore, I would argue that even victims of entirely legal speech deserve our support to mitigate the bad effects of this speech on their careers. We've all worked very hard to get here, and it should not be taken away from us by some angst-ridden cowards with too much time on their hands.  Some *preliminary* ideas, to be discussed at happy hour as Thom suggested:  -Getting all of the deans of top law schools to sign a letter to all law firms warning them not to heed anything written by these websites when screening job applicants   -Working with google to voluntarily remove autoadmit results from the google results of victims? name searches.  -(As earlier posters have suggested) working with advertisers to decrease profits to the website   This school is full of smart people and I think if we come together around this issue we can tailor a plan that even the most extreme free speech advocates would be comfortable with.  This issue is not going away.  The posts are getting worse and new women are being targeted.  What started as "mere" objectification has, most recently, led to pornographic pictures of a 1L at Harvard.  Speaking to the other women here, it is clear that many of us are full with real fear that we could be next. (Perhaps why more women haven't spoke out on this forum)  It's time for us to come together as a community to support each other and take action to protect each other.

Kalokagathia

While there is a flurry of interesting blog-o-sphere and forum thread content related to autoadmit, I wanted to point to this post from Jack Balkin’s site regarding the law, the technology, and the moral or social implications of this controversy. I, for one, am on board with his thinking (some of the commentors to the post are not) - and I couldn’t agree more with his assertion that: Clearly something has gone wrong here. The site administrators should lead by example. They should make a statement that this conduct is unacceptable, and encourage the rest of the community to join in. Failing to do even this much to discourage bad behavior is not protecting free speech. It is simply shirking responsibility.  

Anonymous_24

Anonymous,
How could (how did) interviewers bring up what was said in XOXO into interviews?
It would seem inappropriate.

Legal Eagle

I don’t know how the interviewers brought XOXO up, but I have no trouble believing that inappropriate questions were asked. Two of my friends (each a couple of years ahead of me in law school) had taken a class with a (married) professor who has a reputation for sleeping with his female students. Separately, they each interviewed for summer jobs at firms. Each got asked some version of this question:
“So… [the interviewer holds up the student’s transcript]. I see that you took a class with Professor So-and-So. Is he still sleeping with his students?”
I mean, come on. The question hardly contained between the lines is, did you sleep with him for this grade? The two women didn’t know what to say. Neither took positions with the firms that had asked the inappropriate questions. Recruiters, if you seriously want to hire smart young women lawyers, don’t ask salacious sexual questions like that!

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