Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Virginia Law Weekly Reports on Ciolli/Cohen "Discussion" Board Controversy; Dean Jeffries Comments

Story here; an excerpt:

Recently, several female UVA Law students have been targets of harassment by members of an online message board. This harassment, perpetrated anonymously by posters to AutoAdmit.com, carries potentially damaging repercussions for the women: at least one has already been contacted about it by her prospective employer, and others fear that it will injure their professional reputations.

The worst part, as these women tell the Law Weekly, is that they wouldn’t have had to endure this ordeal if a few of their UVA Law classmates had duly respected their privacy.

AutoAdmit is a widely read message board that ostensibly provides information about law schools and law firms. The site’s many critics are quick to point out, however, that the nature of much of the message board’s content is also racist, misogynistic, or otherwise obscene. Nearly all of the people posting to the site choose to remain anonymous, using only monikers to identify themselves.

In mid-February, several of the site’s members organized a contest that was aimed at naming the “hottest” female student at a “Top 14” law school. To that end, the contest’s organizers solicited nominations from these schools; several UVA Law students responded by submitting dozens of photos of their classmates. In all, pictures of eight UVA Law women appeared on the “Top 14” site. None of them consented to having their pictures posted.

Although the contest wasn’t directly hosted on AutoAdmit, that site’s message board became home to dozens of discussion threads about the contest. Indeed, Anthony Ciolli, a third-year law student at Penn and then co-administrator of AutoAdmit, commented frequently about the “Top 14” contest.

Despite the fact that the “Top 14” site purported to protect the identities of the women pictured in its contest, AutoAdmit members soon began to reference many of them by name. In all, four UVA Law women had their full names posted on the message board. In addition to criticizing their appearances on the discussion threads, AutoAdmit members continually referred to some of these UVA Law students as “whores” and “sluts,” among other terms too obscene to print.

In other representative threads, an anonymous AutoAdmit poster wrote about performing sex acts on them, while another told them to “[g]et raped....”

Indeed, one of the female UVA Law students on the “Top 14” site has already been contacted by her prospective law firm, where her pictures and the AutoAdmit comments about her had circulated. Although it has not changed her job situation, she feels that the site has already impaired her professional reputation. “People at firms read this stuff, and the word spreads. When I come into my law firm, this is not how I want to be seen.”

Another one of the women told us that it was “invasive” and “profoundly hurtful” to have her “name and image connected with the garbage on that site.” To prevent any negative professional consequences, she plans to notify her prospective employer about the information to clear up in advance any possible misconceptions.

The Law Weekly spoke to several of the eight women from UVA Law whose pictures appeared on the site, and we agreed to protect their anonymity in order to prevent further harassment and threats against them. Although each expressed similar condemnation for the administrators of AutoAdmit and for the “Top 14” contest’s organizers, they saved particular condemnation for members of the UVA Law community who participated by either submitting pictures or by posting to the AutoAdmit board.

More than one stated that such actions shattered for them the sense of trust that UVA’s Honor system is meant to foster. One commented:

“When I first got here, everyone told me how this place was so safe that you can leave your laptop around without worrying about it being stolen. You would like to think that also means that people respect each other enough to not invade a fellow student’s privacy.”

Another told the Law Weekly that she was surprised that UVA students participated. “I would have thought that people had more respect for other members of the UVA community.” In addition, she resented having to walk through school “knowing that there were people here who had submitted pictures and who were posting about [her]” on the internet. She added that the UVA Law students who participated should be “embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty about what they’ve put [the women] through.” When they submitted pictures, they “should have known that the tone” of AutoAdmit’s message board would engender the kind of harassment it did....

For her part, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Martha Ballenger said that she was “quite surprised and disappointed that some students in our community were apparently involved in contributing” to the “Top 14” contest. When asked whether any UVA Law students potentially faced official action as a result of these events, Dean John C. Jeffries, Jr. deferred on any such issue to the “student-generated and student-run arbiters of student conduct,” including the Honor System and the Judiciary Committee. Whether these disciplinary mechanisms are pursued remains to be seen.

However, more than one of the women whose pictures were posted to the “Top 14” site have taken matters into their own hands. Some of the women have been able to determine who was responsible for submitting pictures of them without their consent, and have confronted these students.

This was possible because a UVA Law student (who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of harassment by AutoAdmit members) deceived the “Top 14” contest’s organizers and obtained access to the email account through which they were running the site. This student subsequently downloaded all of the account’s messages, and in some cases those emails found their way to the women whose pictures were contained therein. The Law Weekly has viewed the emails in question, several of which do indeed contain identifying information, including names.

The women also told the Law Weekly that one of the more frustrating aspects of the “Top 14” events was that AutoAdmit’s administrators refused to remove any of the discussion from their message board and declined to prevent the information from being accessible through Google....


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