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Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web

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"I didn't understand what I'd done to deserve it," said the student. "I also felt kind of scared because it was someone in my community who was threatening physical and sexual violence and I didn't know who."

The woman e-mailed the site's administrators and asked them to remove the material. She said she received no response. Then she tried contacting Google, which simply cited its policy that the Web site's administrator must remove the material to clear out the search results.

AutoAdmit.com, which also uses the domain name xoxohth.com and which hosts Google-served ads, was launched in 2004. Cohen and his partner, Anthony Ciolli, cite First Amendment ideals. "We are very strong believers in the freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas . . . and almost never censor content, no matter how abhorrent it may be," they wrote in a posting on someone else's blog. The vast majority of chat threads, they wrote, are school-related. "The only time you'll see 20 or so racist threads on the site is if you proactively search for them."

They said the success of the site's message boards -- they claim 800,000 to 1 million unique visitors a month -- owes to its free, anonymous exchange of ideas. "In fact, one finds overall a much deeper and much more mature level of insight in a community where the ugliest depths of human opinion are confronted, rather than ignored," they wrote.

One chat thread included a sexual joke about a female Holocaust victim.

In another comment, a user said a particular woman had no right to ask that the threads be removed. "If we want to objectify, criticize and [expletive] on [expletive] like her, we should be able to."

In another posting, a participant rejected the idea that photos be removed on moral grounds: "We're lawyers and lawyers-in-training, dude. Of course we follow the law, not morals."

"I definitely don't agree with a lot of the conduct on the board," Ciolli said in an interview. But, he said, only Cohen, who created the message board, has authority to have the comments removed. Cohen, in a separate interview, said he will not "selectively remove" offensive comments, and that when he has attempted to do so, he was threatened with litigation for "perceived inconsistencies."

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site -- with links posted on AutoAdmit chats -- to select the "hottest" female law student at "Top 14" law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

"I felt completely objectified," that woman said. It was, she said, "as if they're stealing part of my character from me." The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.

Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the "Top 14" for privacy concerns, Cohen said. "I think we deserve a golden star for what we did," Cohen said.

The two men said that some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace.

Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them."

One woman e-mailed the University of Pennsylvania Law School associate dean, Gary Clinton, in February to ask for his help in persuading Ciolli remove the offensive threads. Clinton told her that since he became aware of AutoAdmit two years ago, he has had "numerous conversations about it" with Penn officials. "I've learned that there appears to be little legal recourse that we have as an institution," he wrote. He said he has had several conversations with Ciolli and has "pointed out time and again how hurtful these ad hominem attacks can be to individuals, and have asked him to delete threads." The effort, he noted, "has been largely unsuccessful."

In a telephone interview, Clinton said the university's position has not changed. "We believe we don't have grounds under the university's code of conduct to proceed," he said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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