Two anonymous female students at Yale Law School have filed a defamation suit against posters on AutoAdmit, the self-proclaimed "most prestigious college discussion board" on the Internet. Filed earlier this month, the suit claims that the defendants infringed the copyrights in certain photographs of the plaintiffs and made false statements about the plaintiffs which caused them difficulty in securing employment and which resulted in other "psychological and economic injury."
The primary plaintiff in the suit is alleged to be a respected Stanford University graduate "identified only as "Doe I." According to the Complaint, Doe I "learned of the Internet attack in the summer of 2005 before moving to Yale in Connecticut. . . . 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." As a result, the plaintiff claims that she lost 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."
A second plaintiff, identified as "Doe II," lodges similar allegations. Both women claim substantial damages.
The Complaint was filed as a "Jane Doe" action, but it hasn’t taken long for the identities of the two plaintiffs to be revealed. In fact, the plaintiffs' problems with AutoAdmit have been well-documented by the media. Certainly, the AutoAdmit posts about them are shockingly crude and reprehensible, but that does not necessarily make them actionable.
Ultimately, the success of this suit depends on the plaintiffs' ability to discover the identity of the offending posters. To this end, they have issued subpoenas for 28 of those anonymous users. Commentators describe the process of determining these users’ identities as difficult, but not impossible; at least one law school professor has opined that "the most vile posters on that board are two subpoenas away from being outed."
Bloggers and the traditional news media are watching this case carefully. Professor Eric Goldman, of the Technology & Marketing Law Blog has opined that the plaintiffs may have difficulty proving that the posters’ statements caused the financial harm they allege. However, the most important aspect of this case may be its ability to test the anonymity of Internet discussion boards.
Given the ease of Internet communications and the protections Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act affords to website operators who publish allegedly actionable statements, there is no effective way to legitimately protect one’s reputation if the identity of anonymous Internet content providers cannot be ascertained. If this suit stalls because the plaintiffs are unable to determine the true identities of the defendants, then defamation law, as we know it, may truly be dead.
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