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Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web

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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

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.

Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search.

The woman 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, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as "the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world." It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also 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.

The site's founder, Jarret Cohen, the insurance agent, said 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.

The students' tales reflect the pitfalls of popular social-networking sites and highlight how social and technological changes lead to new clashes between free speech and privacy. The chats are also a window into the character of a segment of students at leading law schools. Penn officials said they have known about the site and the complaints for two years but have no legal grounds to act against it. The site is not operated with school resources.

Nor is it the only forum for such discussions, but it may be the largest "and is certainly the highest profile," said David A. Hoffman, a Temple University law professor who has conducted research on AutoAdmit.

Employers, including law firms, frequently do Google searches as part of due diligence checks on prospective employees. According to a December survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy research organization, roughly half of U.S. hiring officials use the Internet in vetting job applications. About one-third of the searches yielded content used to deny a job, the survey said. The legal hiring market is very competitive. What could tip the balance is the appearance that a candidate is a lightning rod for controversy, said Mark Rasch, a Washington lawyer and consultant who specializes in Internet issues.

The trend has even spawned a new service, ReputationDefender, whose mission is to search for damaging content online and destroy it on behalf of clients. Generally, the law exempts site operators from liability for the content posted by others, though it does not prevent them from removing offensive items.

"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.

Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and free speech advocacy group, said anonymous cyber-writers can be sued for defamation. A judge can require a Web site host or operator to disclose a user's identifying information. Also, he said, the Internet allows those who feel slandered to put forth their own point of view. "The cure to bad speech is more speech," he said.

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.


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