Law School Deans Speak Out on Web Site Content

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

The deans at two top law schools have admonished the operators of an Internet message board that hosts chats containing personal attacks against female students and racist and homophobic remarks. Letters written by the deans at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania law schools, were issued after an article in The Washington Post aired the debate over AutoAdmit, a message board that was created as a forum to exchange advice on law schools and firms.

The founder of the site, Jarret Cohen, said yesterday that he removed Google ads because "Google has been asking me for awhile about the content" in response to complaints. "I don't want to create a war on multiple fronts," he said. "So I just decided to take [the ads] down."

Though the ads were the site's main source of revenue, Cohen said the site "was not meant to be a cash cow." He said he began running ads eight months ago.

The women who were targeted in some chats had complained to the site owners that the commentary was offensive and false, but they received no relief. Cohen and the site's co-owner, Anthony Ciolli, a third-year law student at Penn, defended AutoAdmit as a forum for free speech.

In an open letter to the "Yale Law School Community," Dean Harold Koh noted that AutoAdmit contained numerous "false and hurtful assertions" by anonymous posters, and that some included names and personal information of Yale students.

Some chats contained claims that women had sexually transmitted diseases. One Yale student, The Post reported, believed that the chat content, which was accessible in a Google search, contributed to her inability to find a summer job.

"Such anonymous, personal attacks on individuals are despicable," Koh wrote. "These malicious attacks, as well as racist, sexist and homophobic speech, have no place in the Yale Law School community."

The Penn law school dean, Michael A. Fitts, and the associate dean, Gary Clinton, posted a letter on the site Thursday, stating that while they understood the right to engage in spirited debate, "we all have a moral and professional obligation to engage in that debate in a responsible manner."

They said that though the university thought it had no basis to act against Ciolli, the derogatory comments could serve as a basis for defamation suits and "may increasingly become the subject of concern by bar admissions committees."

Meanwhile, ReputationDefender, which is representing several women who were targeted on AutoAdmit, has engaged a law firm to explore civil and criminal claims on the women's behalf, ReputationDefender chief executive Michael Fertik said.

Cohen said that he thought the criticism was overblown. "There are far more important things than what everybody's been wasting time complaining about over the past couple of days," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company