Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Autoadmit (aka the Ciolli/Cohen Discussion Board) "Strikes Again"

So wrote Dean Nell Newton of Hastings to me last night, noting that the "discussion" board notorious for its misogynistic, racist, anti-semitic, and homophobic abuse--as well as for the general unwillingness of its administrators Anthony Ciolli (a Penn law student) and Jarret Cohen (an insurance agent) to do anything about it, even when asked directly by victims--has now also become a forum for making jokes about the horrors at Virginia Tech and copycat threats, in this case against Hastings!  Dean Newton's message to the law school community yesterday (Wednesday), which she forwarded to me, follows:

As you know, today someone posted on a law-related (sort of) bulletin board a statement that was either a sick joke or a threat related to Hastings, and someone who read the bulletin board called Hastings. Immediately after the post others also posted to the bulletin board condemning the action. 

The problem for us, of course was trying to decide how to respond in light of Virginia Tech, the fact that the poster referred to Virginia Tech in the title of the post, and the frayed nerves at all schools in the country, including our own.  After consulting with the local police and FBI we decided to cancel classes out of an excess of caution to protect our students, faculty, and staff. 

The bulletin board, autoadmit, is controversial and, like many such fora, attracts a great deal of drivel, much of it incredibly offensive.  The Washington Post ran a story on the bulletin board in March:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/06/AR2007030602705.html

In light of the information we have learned since this afternoon from the police, the self-serving statement below by the bulletin board's administrator, and many other postings to autoadmit regarding the identity of the poster, I am confident that our decision to resume classes tomorrow is the right one.  However, I believe it prudent to continue heightened security through the end of the week and ask that you be patient while we check ID's during this period. 

Statement on U.C. Hastings Evacuation

by Jarret Cohen on behalf of AutoAdmit

This afternoon, the dean of the University of California, Hastings College of Law, acting on the advice of the FBI, cancelled classes and evacuated the building after becoming aware of a message posted on the AutoAdmit discussion board. An individual has come forward to claim responsibility for that message, and when the FBI special agent in charge of this matter contacted me I put him in touch with this person. My expectation is that this matter will, from this point on, be handled between the poster, the authorities, and the school.

Today someone yelled "Fire!" on AutoAdmit, and some people took his word for it. I don't blame them, given the horrible timing of the comment. Please understand that I run this place the way I do because I believe you deserve the chance to express yourselves openly and freely. But please, don't be stupid. Something said as a flame or a joke - as likely was the case here - may not be interpreted that way by college administrators, law enforcement, or those unfamiliar with the AutoAdmit community.

UPDATE:  A Hastings faculty member tells me that the FBI has identified a Boalt student as responsible for the threat; his legal career is presumably finished.  Here is the message Dean Newton has sent out to the community:

To the Hastings Community:

Thank you for your cooperation during what has been a most trying timefor the law school, not made any easier by the intense media coverage.  I have emailed and spoken to many of our students and want you all to feel comfortable calling or emailing me with your continued concerns.

The San Francisco Police Department and, in particular, the Tenderloin district, under the capable leadership of Captain Gary Jimenez has been extraoardinarily responsive.  We have had increased police protection, both undercover and uniformed.  Our own campus security has also gone the extra distance to ensure your safety.

As I told you last night, I believe this incident is over.  The FBI has identified the person responsible and, earlier today, I spoke with Dean Christopher Edley of Boalt, who has subsequently sent the letter of sympathy set forth below.

We will continue heightened security through commencement.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions by email or calling my office.

=============================

Dear Nell:

I write to express my deep regret and sympathy to you and the Hastings community for the anxiety and upset created by the web posting allegedly authored by a student here at Boalt Hall.  Coming on the heels of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the posting was in my judgment at the very best an astounding instance of immaturity, terrible judgment, and reckless disregard for the welfare of others.

I understand that federal and local law enforcement officials have completed their "threat assessment", concluding  that the posting was a hoax and that the alleged author, whom they have identified, does not pose a risk to others.  They continue to investigate whether criminal charges are appropriate.  Quickly on the heels of their investigation, and regardless of its outcome, we at Boalt will consider what disciplinary proceedings might be appropriate.  Of course, we are also consulting with mental health professionals.

Once again, on behalf of the Boalt community, please accept our sympathy and best wishes as you work through this quickly and heal any wounds the incident has created.

Warm regards,

Christopher Edley, Jr.
Dean and Professor of Law
UC, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law

ANOTHER:  A Boalt professor sent me Dean Edley's e-mail to the law school there, which correctly noted, that, "Coming on the heels of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the posting was an astounding instance of
immaturity, terrible judgment, and reckless disregard for the welfare of others."  That, of course, sums up the Autoadmit website.

AND ONE FINAL ONE:  This is both funny and apt.  Regarding Ciolli and Cohen's standard dishonest refrain--“We are very strong believers in the freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas . . . and almost never censor content, no matter how abhorrent it may be...The only time you’ll see 20 or so racist threads on the site is if you proactively search for them"--the author comments:

Or if you browse the front page.  Today’s “most prestigious law school discussion board in the world” includes threads titled Would you date any of the black girls in your law school? and just got a sloppy blow job - taking questions and I’ve known a lot of wierd KOREANS and Who is this new youtube fag that keeps posting and It seems clear that Britain should never have left Zimbabwe (which sadly merits no comments yet) and I often fantasize about being raped written by a genius that goes by “Duke Rape Accuser”. If you think discussions like these are merely juvenile, I promise you will not be disappointed by the threads’ content.

What separates this board from the rest of the usual racist and sexist tripe that litters the internet is...the board's owners have pretty much resolved to do nothing about it and even go out of their way to defend legally dubious statements under the right of free speech....

[T]he truth is that the board is quickly becoming a professional liability for anyone who actively participates; it’s garnering a negative reputation far beyond the “social experiment” frame that its defenders purport. Further, a superficial glance over the topics on the board show it’s only peripherally related to the law school experience, as its defenders claim.

Way back when, when the site was “only” under attack for hosting threats of raping and skullfucking classmates, Cohen said:

“I want it to be a place where people can express themselves freely, just as if they were to go to a town square and say whatever brilliant or foolish thoughts they have.”

May he get what he wishes for.

There is a less humorous, but equally good, critique of Ciolli and Cohen's rationalizations here.

http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2007/04/autoadmit_aka_t.html

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