by Scott Greenfield
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I never visited AutoAdmit. I never read the crap that filled its discussion boards, where the “best and brightest” were given uncensored freedom to say what the would. What they said was disgusting and ridiculous, replete with vicious attacks and smears. No one with half a brain took any of it seriously, as it was just too bizarre and obviously baseless.
So much for the great minds that may one day sit on the Supreme Court. The students of our most prestigious law schools are as scummy, if not more so, than the rest of us. Free speech, in its rawest form, can be really ugly. But wholly uncensored speech was the primary reason for the existence of the discussion boards at AutoAdmit, for better or worse.
But two young women did, and were deeply hurt by things that were said about them. The story of Brittan Heller and Heide Iravani is old to the blawgosphere, but was given new life in a Portfolio article, which formed the basis of a post in Ann Bartow’s Feminist Law Professors. Bartow says these young women are “awesome”.
While Heller and Iravani started out as the victims of malicious slurs on the discussion boards, they turned it around and went on the attack. The problem isn’t that they stood up for themselves, though many questioned their motives, calling them two elitist, self-centered brats who couldn’t bear not being in control of others. Some suggested that it was this demeanor that gave rise to their problems, bringing the ire and disdain of their classmates down on them like a hail of feces. After all, the attacks against these young women appeared to come from the same people they sat with daily. Maybe, just maybe, some of their classmates at Yale Law School didn’t think as well of them as they thought of themselves?
But even if we assume that they are “awesome” for having stood up to the cyber-bullying, our “awesome” heroines switched roles when they went on the offensive. And offensive it was. Autoadmit was run by Jarret Cohen, who employed Anthony Ciolli, a Penn law student, to research law school rankings and law firms. Cohen was in charge of the rest of it. But when Heller and Iravani decided to go after someone, AutoAdmit and Cohen couldn’t be touched.
So the young women wanted blood for their tainted names. Apparently, they weren’t too concerned with whose blood it was.
In the 21 months since they filed suit, the women have already made some headway. But there are also accusations that the victims are becoming victimizers. Some of the defendants say the case amounts to an all-expenses-paid elitist temper tantrum in which two privileged women have cast an overly broad net, thus failing to differentiate between the really wicked and some of the tamer flamers, and have jeopardized careers in ways far more serious than theirs ever have been. One way or another, their suit highlights a culture and a legal system that still aren’t quite sure how freely people can or should speak online, how seriously to take what they say, and whether they can or should be sued for saying it.
The fight went to the firm that had offered a job to Ciolli after graduation, Edwards Angell, pressured to withdraw its offer. It did, and he was out of job.
Some concerned Yale students weighed a number of options. One was finding out the firm where Ciolli would be working upon graduation and pressuring it to withdraw its offer. It turned out to be the Boston law firm of Edwards, Angell, Palmer & Dodge, which in April rescinded its offer. The message board violated “principles of collegiality and respect that members of the legal profession should observe in their dealings with other lawyers,” the firm’s managing partner, Charles DeWitt, wrote Ciolli.
Then the lawsuit came.
Under Section 230(c), AutoAdmit and Cohen could not be sued. Neither, theoretically, could Ciolli, but he was nonetheless listed as a defendant—the only one charged under his real name. According to Lemley, the plaintiffs believed Ciolli had written some of the defamatory postings, making him vulnerable to a lawsuit. Ciolli counters that he was included either out of spite or to be held hostage until Cohen, over whom the women otherwise had no leverage, cleaned up his website. In November, without any explanation, Ciolli’s name was dropped from the case. “Even a middling law student at an unaccredited law school could figure out within five minutes of research that under Section 230(c), Anthony had complete legal immunity,” said his lawyer, Marc Randazza.
Since Ciolli was the easiest target, these “awesome” young women set about destroying his life. That he wasn’t the cause of their angst was of little concern. By falsely claiming he might have been one of the posters, they sought to use Ciolli to extort control from Cohen and force the removal of the offending comments. Ciollo was the pawn in their game, and they were more than happy to sacrifice the helpless pawn to get to the king. The victims became the victimizers, and Ciolli was the target.
Sickening their experiences undoubtedly were. But had anything anyone posted actually been illegal? A judge or jury might view some posts, like the specific calls to harass Iravani, as intentional infliction of emotional distress. But many other posts, however cruel, might not be seen as extreme or outrageous enough to lose their First Amendment protection. As for defamation, the overwhelming majority of the comments could be construed as opinions, which are protected. True, some statements, such as the ones claiming that the women had venereal diseases, were by definition libelous. But even here, context matters: Courts have held that given the juvenile and hyperbolic quality of chat-room rhetoric, online comments cannot be taken as seriously as those made in real life. Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends old-fashioned free-speech rights in the online world, called most of the plaintiffs’ claims “extraordinarily, extraordinarily weak.” Their argument, he said, amounted to liability by association: that simply by participating in chats theoretically containing some unprotected speech, all posters were thereby culpable. He called that claim “wrongheaded and dangerous.”
Eventually, the action against Ciolli was dismissed, after his job was lost, he was put to the defense of a frivolous claim and his bar admission screwed up. So the only person who has suffered actual harm as a result of all this is Anthony Ciolli, at worst a bystander to free speech who failed, in the eyes of these two women, to obey their commands.
For those who believe that free speech is a worthy value standing alone, the ugly comes hand in hand with freedom. Ann Bartow enjoys her free speech when she posts about the “awesomeness” of her two heroines, omitting the details about the harm they caused. Where are the qualms about her two heroines’ efforts to undermine free speech for others? Does feminism demand that free speech be a one way street, going only in its direction? But speech is a right, no flesh or blood attached. It’s an easy victim, as it can’t scream out in pain. What about Ciolli?
Now I may be a bit blind to something, not being as politically correct as some, or perhaps not being as myopic as others, but I fail to see how anyone, regardless of one’s blind devotion to feminist orthodoxy, can call two women who wrongfully and disgracefully destroyed the life of a young man solely because he was the only one they could find to hurt “awesome”. Is there some disease that infects the feminist law professor mystique that relishes harming an innocent 20 year old male, no matter what?
Wow, Ann. Really “awesome”.