AutoAdmit Fiasco Turns Into a Lawsuit–Doe v. Ciolli

By Eric Goldman

Doe v. Ciolli, 307CV00909 CFD (D. Conn. complaint filed June 11, 2007)

AutoAdmit is a message board for law students and related groupies. It’s a relatively untamed corner of cyberspace. The site owners have espoused a relatively ideological view that they don’t remove user posts, which has contributed to a rough-and-tumble site with lots of inappropriate and juvenile postings.

The site has been well-known in legal education circles for a number of years, but it crossed over to widespread national prominence with a Washington Post article in March discussing how some law students had been harmed by posts on AutoAdmit. The article starts out:

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.

The article then points the finger at AutoAdmit, blaming it for her lack of job market success.

Things generally have gone downhill from there, contributing to the relatively unusual situation where one of the site operators had his law firm job offer revoked. But now the heat has been turned up even higher with a lawsuit against a number of the posters to the AutoAdmit site. This is a very messy situation, so let me try to offer some (I hope) relatively innocuous observations:

1) I suspect the law students whose aliases were named in the complaint had that sickening stomach-liquefying feeling when they realized they were being sued. Being sued is an expensive and scary process.

2) The facts aren’t entirely clear, but I believe the plaintiffs aren’t trying to hold defendants liable for postings they didn’t make. Of course, 47 USC 230 would likely bar most/all of such claims (although after Roommates.com, who knows how far 230 goes?), so it appears that the plaintiffs are wisely steering away from that trap.

3) I think the plaintiffs face some very significant causation issues here, at least with respect to the defamation claims that aren’t per se libelous. For example, the plaintiff with 16 interviews and zero offers will have to connect the dots to show the online postings caused or contributed to this result. This doesn’t sound very easy at all, and it creates the opportunity for the defendants to pick over the plaintiff’s life and qualifications with a fine-tooth comb to show that there were other explanations for her lack of success. In all likelihood, this means more embarrassing revelations for the plaintiff; compare the public disclosures that Robert Steinbuch faced by bringing his lawsuit against Jessica Cutler.

4) I wonder if the judge will consider the message board’s wide-open and infantile nature when evaluating the postings. Some of the postings cited in the complaint were, in context, so over-the-top that I can’t imagine any reader giving them serious credibility. For an analogous circumstance where the judge recognized the contextual silliness of some remarks, see DiMeo v. Max.

5) This lawsuit could be very divisive in the legal education community. In one corner, free speech and personal/professional autonomy; in the other corner, intolerance for harassing and discriminatory behavior (especially by professional school students, like law students) that can seriously harm the professional opportunities and personal enjoyment of other students. These conflicting norms aren’t new, but they tend to divide groups into camps that have a hard time finding a middle ground.

6) Although the defamation and related claims will get most of the attention, the copyright claim seems more pernicious–the postings might be covered by fair use [update: see Rebecca's take], but otherwise the defenses against copyright infringement are narrower and less squishy than the defenses against the other personality harm claims.

HT: WSJ Law Blog.

UPDATE: Eugene has a number of interesting observations.

UPDATE 2: David Lat recaps and summarizes the discussion.