Thursday, October 29, 2009

Anonymity and Cyber-Bullying

This is somewhat off-topic. However, as a blogger, I am interested in cases about blogging. Recently, I have come across coverage of two cases dealing with people who wanted to say mean things on-line under the cloak of anonymity. One case involved postings which were merely libelous and nasty, while another involved a determined campaign of cyber-bullying against two female law students.

Skanks of NYC

The current issue of the Federal Lawyer has an excellent article by Michael Tonsing entitled "A Fashion Model, a Mean-Spirited Name-Calling Detractor, a Blog, and at Least Four Teachable Moments," The Federal Lawyer (October 2009), p. 10. It is the story of a blogger who wrote five posts about a fashion model under the title "Skanks of NYC." The author also included some sexually suggestive photos of the model. The model, Liskula Cohen, sued Google to find out the identity of the blogger. The trial judge in New York granted this request over Google's objection. The outed blogger turned out to be another woman, who then sued Google for giving up her IP address. In an interesting case of chutzpah, the attorney for the outed blogger compared the right to hurl anonymous insults to the authors of the Federalist Papers who wrote under pseudonyms (but whose identities were well known). Mr. Tonsing concludes his article with a great pun: "Anonymity is not guaranteed. Proceed at your own risk in Cyberia. When is a door not a door? When it's ajar."


The other case, which I discovered from Prof. Nancy Rapoport's blog, is much darker and more disturbing. A website called AutoAdmit bills itself as "the most prestigious law school discussion board in the world." Two Yale law school students were subjected to a vicious smear campaign on the site. Some 39 different anonymous posters using names such as pauliewalnuts, Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey and Sleazy Z started a campaign which began with sexually explicit comments and escalated to statements suggesting that the women be raped and killed. According to a Complaint filed in United States District Court:

Two women who have done nothing except work hard in school and show promise of making contributions to society have been targeted because of their appearance and out of spite to be the subject of a campaign of pornographic abuse. Hiding behind pseudonyms and the smug assumption that their carefully-aimed hostility can pass as merely juvenile misconduct, the defendants have worked assiduously to harm the plaintiffs, for the sheer joy of destruction. Plaintiffs, whose character, intelligence, appearance and sexual lives have been thoroughly trashed by the defendants, now seek redress by bringing this action for damages and injunctive relief.
Complaint, Doe v. Unknown Defendants, Case No. 307CV00909, U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, p. 1.

The statements made on the discussion board, which were outrageous in their vulgarity, are set forth in detail in the complaint. Some of the tamer comments suggested that one of the students had bribed her way into Yale Law School and was having a lesbian affair with the Dean of Admissions, included anti-Semitic slurs about the students, stated that one of them had herpes and had numerous postings about the manner in which the posters wanted to have forced sex with them. The campaign went so far as to send anonymous emails to faculty of Yale Law School and a firm where one of the students had a summer clerkship suggesting that she would harm the reputation of both the Law School and the law firm.

The two students fought back, hiring Reputation Defender, which is an internet public relations firm, and filing suit in United States District Court. In the District Court suit, the plaintiffs sent subpoenas to the internet service providers of the anonymous posters seeking their identity. One such anonymous person, who went by the moniker AK47, sought to quash the subpoena. In an interesting opinion, U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney found that:

The forgoing principles and decisions make clear that Doe 21 has a First Amendment right to anonymous Internet speech, but that the right is not absolute and must be weighed against Doe II’s need for discovery to redress alleged wrongs. Courts have considered a number of factors in balancing these two competing interests. This balancing analysis ensures that the First Amendment rights of anonymous Internet speakers are not lost unnecessarily, and that plaintiffs do not use discovery to “harass, intimidate or silence critics in the public forum opportunities presented by the Internet.”
Ruling on Defendant John Doe 21's Motion to Quash Plaintiff's Subpoena and Motion to Proceed Anonymously, Doe v. Unknown Defendants, Case No. 3:07CV909 (D.Ct. 6/13/08). After weighing various factors, the Court concluded that the subpoena should not be quashed.

As a result of discovery, the Plaintiffs concluded that one of the posters was Matthew C. Ryan, an undergraduate student at the University of Texas. Other identities were discovered, but kept quiet during settlement negotiations. When names started to be named, settlements came quickly. Left unanswered was what motivated the attacks in the first place.

In a bizarre sidenote, one of the libelled students is now the defendant in an action brought by a former employee of Auto-Admit. While attending law school, Anthony Ciolli worked for Auto-Admit as chief educational director. In their campaign to get Auto-Admit to take down the offending posts, the students and Reputation Defender publicly named Ciolli as administrator of the site and stated that he had refused to remove the postings. Ciolli was also named as a defendant in the initial lawsuit. Curiously, neither Auto-Admit nor its owner were named as defendants. Ciolli claimed that he had no control over the discussion board. However, when news of the scandal spread, a law firm rescinded its employment offer to him. While much of Ciolli's suit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds or for failure to state a cause of action, it remains pending in the U.S. District Court in Philadephia.


The internet is a remarkable forum for the expression of ideas. Anyone can become their own publisher with a minimum of effort and can do so anonymously. However, anonymity can be a cloak for abuse. In the case of the Yale Law School students, they were subjected to nothing less than a gang rape of their reputations and psyches. It seems like a bit of an understatement to point out that online defamers are not the modern day equivalent of the authors of the Federalist Papers. In these cases, the outing of the anonymous authors was a good thing.

I choose to write under my own name and photo. I also don't write anything that I would be embarassed to have my mother read. For some time now, I have moderated comments on my bankruptcy blog. Besides filtering out comments which are really ads for male enhancement products, I have rejected several comments which made personal attacks on judges and litigants mentioned in my posts. As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, "Let's be careful out there."


Nancy Rapoport said...

Hear, hear--I find that very few anonymous posters have real "fear" reasons to hide behind their "anonymous" monikers. BTW, I think that Anthony Ciolli got a really raw deal throughout. It was the posters who were vicious, not AutoAdmit itself--although of course I've been wilded on that site, too.

Love your blog!

Ron said...

just a reminder that the UT cyberstalker has no relation to the Austin construction attorney Matthew Ryan!

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