Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Controversy over Ciolli/Cohen "Discussion" Board Continues: "Autoadmit" Profiled on List of "Unethical" Websites

Here; an excerpt:

AutoAdmit bills itself as "the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world"....  "[P]restigious" isn't the word for AutoAdmit.   "Infamous" is more accurate. "Slimy" may be even better.

The site is the creation of Anthony Ciolli, a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jarret Cohen, a 23-year-old insurance agent....[I]t includes hundreds [in fact, thousands] of anonymous posts that insult women, gays, blacks, Jews and Asians, frequently disparaging individuals by name. Messages are sometimes outright libel, including false claims about sexual activity and STDs, and accusations of unethical activities. To the targets' dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google's powerful search engine. And many potential employers of law school graduates routinely check Google for information on a candidate. Thanks to AutoAdmit, what they will find will sometimes be racist, sexist or   obscene gossip.

Cohen says the site merely provides a forum for free speech. "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," Cohen said in a recent Washington Post interview. Ciolli was quoted as saying that he "almost never censor[s] content, no matter how abhorrent it may be" because he is a "strong believer in freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas."

This transparent rationalization for the site's irresponsible management is simultaneously infuriating and hilarious. In the "town square" one must be physically present to be heard, which means that the source of offensive and insulting speech directed at an individual must take responsibility for his or her actions. Not on AutoAdmit, however; those brave warriors of free expression can remain anonymous, because Ciolli and Cohen let them. Nor did the speeches in the town square end up on a web search engine like Google, where they could be seen by anyone in the world with a computer, downloaded, copied, and distributed to humiliate and harm an innocent victim of a verbal attack.

Comparing AutoAdmit to the town square is like comparing the late Anna Nicole Smith to Mother Theresa. What the site really resembles is the walls of a particularly busy public toilet where low-lifes anonymously inscribe filthy graffiti about others. Unlike the operators of most such cesspools of anonymous "free expression," however, these two actually         boast that they never wash the walls, encouraging more and more irresponsible content....   

In mid-February, several frequenters of the site organized a contest on a separate site to name the "hottest" female student at a "Top 14" law school and used AutoAdmit to publicize the contest and the involuntary "entrants." A group of boorish University of Virginia Law students posted dozens of photos of their eight female classmates, which all ended up on AutoAdmit. None of them consented to having their pictures posted.

Then the AutoAdmit's message board was bombarded with salacious comments about the women, often referencing them by name. The Virginia Law Weekly reported that in addition to criticizing the co-eds' physical attributes on the discussion threads, AutoAdmit members continually referred to some of these UVA Law students as "whores," "sluts," and worse. One anonymous AutoAdmit poster wrote about performing sex acts on them, while another told them to "get raped." Naturally, Ciolli and Cohen did nothing. Well, that's unfair: Ciolli commented on the girls himself.

Finally, the "Hottest Female" contest so dominated AutoAdmit and was focusing so much criticism on the site that Ciolli persuaded the organizers to authorize the removal of its posts. But to do so was the decision of the contest's originators, not the AutoAdmit administrators, and the damage to the women who were exhibited and derided cannot be undone. Meanwhile, more anonymous bile pours onto the site daily. The decision to ask the contest to leave was a PR move, not a change in policy. Ciolli told the Washington Post that he thought he deserved a "gold star," even though he encouraged the competition by participating in the on-line assessment  of the female law students.

[Aside to whatever state bar association Ciolli eventually applies to  join: Watch out. This guy is an ethics violation waiting to happen.] 

As I have heard from numerous law students, however, it is well-known that Mr. Ciolli and Mr. Cohen remove threads all the time when it suits them.  Indeed, in one instance, Mr. Ciolli, when confronted by one of his Penn professors, had a disgusting thread about the professor removed within a half hour.  For obvious reasons, Mr. Cohen and especially Mr. Ciolli have been trying to rewrite the history of their moderation policies, with Mr. Ciolli going so far as to proffer a fake "resignation" from the discussion board (that the "resignation" was meaningless is suitably exposed in the comments section here).  One female student who had been harassed and defamed on the discussion board wrote to me reporting that in the wake of the Washington Post story (in which her travails with Autoadmit had not been mentioned) Mr. Ciolli e-mailed her school's Dean of Students

and told her he is unable to do anything about the postings about me because I never gave him my name. However, I e-mailed him a number of times, gave him my name, and gave him direct links to the postings and each time he responded, he was extremely rude, told me not to contact him again, and said there is nothing he can do about the postings.  So, it looks like he is now making misrepresentations to school administrators. I also find it odd that he is responding to the problem one year later.

A group of students at Yale Law School, meanwhile, is compiling a dossier on Mr. Ciolli's unethical conduct for submission to state Bar Character & Fitness Committees.

(Thanks to the various readers/law students who have been forwarding information about Autoadmit the last couple of weeks.)

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Tracked on Apr 9, 2007 6:53:46 AM