Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dealing with cyber-harassment

Professor Leong offers a lot of very helpful advice, applicable even to cases of cyber-harassment that don't involve racism and misogyny.  Her own story involving one of the more notorious "scamablog" trolls, "dybbuk," is instructive (this pathetic individual--an adult man in his 40s [!]--has been harassing, defaming, and insulting law professors [overwhelmingly women and minorities] on-line for a couple of years now):

Over the course of about fifteen months, this particular harasser commented about me approximately 70 times on at least five different websites, frequently remarking on my physical appearance.  He started several derogatory threads devoted exclusively to me, in which other commenters also targeted me with racist and sexist harassment.  He wrote two lengthy plays about me.  The threads he started often attracted dozens or even hundreds of comments.  His sustained attention to me also incited other pseudonymous members of a blog where he often posts to author lengthy racist and sexist posts about me, which, again, often attracted large numbers of comments about me, including comments from him.  Moreover, he wrote offensive profiles of a dozen other law professors who were–so far as I could tell, with one exception–all women or people of color or both.  And, of course, these were just the comments under his pseudonym.  It would not surprise me to learn that some of the many anonymous comments about me were also by him, although I haven’t taken the time to investigate this.  This sustained attention and the ideas it contained became increasingly disturbing to me, and eventually I decided to figure out who he was....

 

The pseudonymous individual I mentioned above had posted specific information about his alma mater, the city where he lived, his job, various professional organizations to which he belonged, and other miscellaneous information.  It took fifteen minutes to find out who he was using google and other publicly available databases.  The result was troubling in itself: he was a public defender in his late forties who apparently has nothing better to do than harass an untenured professor....

 

There are a few lessons here.  One is that even in the online world harassers often feel compelled to develop continuous and stable personalities, perhaps as a way of compensating for the social deficiencies in their actual lives.  Another is that a lot of harassers are repeat offenders–that is, if someone is harassing you, odds are that you aren’t the first....

 

After I discovered the identity of my most persistent harasser, I decided to give him a call, which is something that adults do when they have a disagreement to discuss.  I did this for several reasons.  One was that I wanted to talk to him so that I could try to understand why an untenured professor he had never met could become the subject of a year-plus obsession.  Another reason was pure curiosity.  I have always been interested in what causes people to hate one another–or, at the very least, to write hateful things about other people, especially those they have never met.  But the main reason was simply that I truly wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.  People’s lives are complicated by mental illness, loneliness, personal hardship, and grief.  Although I have tried without success to find a definitive source for the saying “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” the words resonate with me and I try to live them.  My hope was that the person who had written so many hateful things about me was a good person who–prompted by difficult personal circumstances–had made a mistake.

 

To my regret, my harasser refused to speak to me.... 

 

Sometimes harassers are subject to various sources of discipline besides the law itself.  A number of professions, ranging from doctors to mental health providers to lawyers, are bound by profession-specific rules of conduct.  A few of my harassers turned out to be attorneys.  An examination of the rules of professional conduct in the states where one of them is licensed–followed by consultation with a couple of legal ethicists and an attorney staffing the ethics hotline–suggested that this attorney was in violation of multiple ethics provisions.  And so I decided to file a formal complaint with the bars in the states where he is licensed.

 

I don’t know what will happen as a result of my complaint.  Many state bars hesitate to stir up controversy, and attorney discipline is relatively rare.  But I do feel that it is important for others closer to his situation to have knowledge of his online behavior so that they can make an informed decision about what to do.

http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2013/12/dealing-with-cyber-harassment.html

Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest | Permalink