Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Washington Post Runs Expose of "Law School" Chat Room Run by Penn Law Student

We had occasion to remark on this notorious site two years ago; today, the Washington Post ran a front-page story here.  An excerpt:

The woman [a Yale Law student] and two others interviewed by The Washington Post learned from friends that they were the subject of derogatory chats on a widely read message board on AutoAdmit, run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent. The women spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution online.

The law-school board...contains hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets' dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google's powerful search engine....

"For many people the Internet has become a scarlet letter, an albatross," said Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender's chief executive. The company is launching a campaign to get AutoAdmit to cleanse its site and encourage law schools to adopt a professional conduct code for students....

The chats sometimes include photos taken from women's Facebook pages, and in the Yale student's case, one person threatened to sexually violate her. Another participant claimed to be the student, making it appear that she was taking part in the discussion.

"I didn't understand what I'd done to deserve it," said the student. "I also felt kind of scared because it was someone in my community who was threatening physical and sexual violence and I didn't know who."

The woman e-mailed the site's administrators and asked them to remove the material. She said she received no response....

One chat thread included a sexual joke about a female Holocaust victim.

In another comment, a user said a particular woman had no right to ask that the threads be removed. "If we want to objectify, criticize and [expletive] on [expletive] like her, we should be able to...."

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site -- with links posted on AutoAdmit chats -- to select the "hottest" female law student at "Top 14" law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

"I felt completely objectified," that woman said. It was, she said, "as if they're stealing part of my character from me." The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her....

[Jarrett Cohen and Anthony Ciolli, the site's owners] said that some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace....

One woman e-mailed the University of Pennsylvania Law School associate dean, Gary Clinton, in February to ask for his help in persuading Ciolli remove the offensive threads. Clinton told her that since he became aware of AutoAdmit two years ago, he has had "numerous conversations about it" with Penn officials. "I've learned that there appears to be little legal recourse that we have as an institution," he wrote. He said he has had several conversations with Ciolli and has "pointed out time and again how hurtful these ad hominem attacks can be to individuals, and have asked him to delete threads." The effort, he noted, "has been largely unsuccessful."

Several of the women who were recent victims of harassment and threats of sexual violence on the Ciolli/Cohen discussion board have retained the services of ReputationDefender, which is taking legal action and  launching a campaign aimed at Mr. Ciolli, the Penn law student.  They have posted an open letter to Mr. Ciolli here:

For years, the website /, owned by you and Jarrett Cohen, has been home to many pages of abusive, explicit and defamatory content about otherwise private citizens. As you are aware, commentary on this site is often overtly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and perpetuated without the consent and often without the knowledge of the private individuals attacked....

I regret that you have not responded to the many very kind entreaties from women who have been victimized on your site. Some comments harmful to reputations have been up on your site for years. Some victims have contacted you and pleaded with you multiple times. Instead of responding to these kind requests, in many cases you or others from the AutoAdmit / Xoxohth community have posted these women's entreaties to the website to be mocked by members of the community who hide behind a shield of anonymity. It would take so little effort for you to remove these threads, as evidenced by your rapid removal of other threads.

They also have issued an open letter to Dean Fitts of the University of Pennsylvania Law School urging him to "take swift and measured action to address the hurtful actions and inactions of Mr. Ciolli" and noting that "Mr. Ciolli has failed to live up to the standard of professionalism expected of members of the bar or of a university community." 

ReputationDefender has also compiled a "gallery of horrors" from the Ciolli/Cohen board.  (This is a useful indicator that the preceding is not unrepresentative.)

There is blog commentary on this story here, here , here and here.

Of Academic Interest, Student Advice | Permalink

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