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U.S. Internet defamation suit tests online anonymity

BOSTON (Reuters) – It bills itself as the world’s “most prestigious college discussion board,” giving a glimpse into law school admissions policies, post-graduate social networking and the hiring practices of major law firms.

But the AudoAdmit site, widely used by law students for information on schools and firms, is also known as a venue for racist and sexist remarks and career-damaging rumors.

Now it’s at the heart of a defamation lawsuit that legal experts say could test the anonymity of the Internet.

After facing lewd comments and threats by posters, two women at Yale Law School filed a suit on June 8 in U.S. District Court in New Haven, Connecticut, that includes subpoenas for 28 anonymous users of the site, which has generated more than 7 million posts since 2004.

According to court documents, a user on the site named “STANFORDtroll” began a thread in 2005 seeking to warn Yale students about one of the women in the suit, entitled “Stupid Bitch to Enter Yale Law.” Another threatened to rape and sodomize her, the documents said.

The plaintiff, a respected Stanford University graduate identified only as “Doe I” in the lawsuit, learned of the Internet attack in the summer of 2005 before moving to Yale in Connecticut. The posts gradually became more menacing.

Some posts made false claims about her academic record and urged users to warn law firms, or accused her of bribing Yale officials to gain admission and of forming a lesbian relationship with a Yale administrator, the court papers said.

The plaintiff said she believes the harassing remarks, which lasted nearly two years, cost her an important summer internship. After interviewing with 16 firms, she received only four call-backs and ultimately had zero offers — a result considered unusual given her qualifications.

Another woman, identified as Doe II, endured similar attacks. The two, who say they suffered substantial “psychological and economic injury,” also sued a former manager of the site because he refused to remove disparaging messages. The manager had cited free-speech protections.

“The harassment they were subjected to was quite grotesque,” said Brian Leiter, a professor at University of Texas Law School. “Any judge who looks at this is going to be really shocked, and particularly shocked because these appear to be law students.”

The suit is being watched closely to see if the posters are unmasked, a step that could make anonymous chat room users more circumspect. It also underlines the growing difficulty of protecting reputations online as the Web is used increasingly to screen prospective employees and romantic partners.

“They can’t hide behind anonymity while they are saying these scurrilous and menacing things,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He said the site was not liable under federal protections that are more lenient on Web sites than TV and newspapers. Prosecuting the manager could also be difficult because he did not write the posts, Volokh added. But the anonymous posters look liable and their careers could be jeopardized, he said.

“This ought to be a warning to be people that if you say things that are not just rude but arguably libelous and potentially threatening and perhaps actionable on those grounds then their identity might be unmasked,” he said.

Finding and identifying the posters — including one called “The Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah” — could be tough but is not impossible. The process involves subpoenas issued to Internet Service Providers for records, and then more subpoenas to companies, institutions or people identified on those records.

“I’ve said in my blog the most vile posters on that board are two subpoenas away from being outed,” said Leiter. “This led to much amusement by the anonymous posters on the board.

“But they are about to find out that this is how it works.”

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