Though I haven't blogged about it, comments here have touched on the AutoAdmit lawsuit. AutoAdmit.com is a butt-ugly set of forums related to college, law school, and other grad schools, containing some discussions useful and interesting to students but mostly rude, puerile mastubatory rubbish generated by dysfunctional arrested adolescents desperate to shock. Trolls, in other words. It's a nest of trolls.
Two Yale Law students sued a number of anonymous commenters at AutoAdmit for defamation and other causes of action when those commenters posted increasingly vile stuff about the two women, allegedly causing one to lose a job offer when her Google profile became increasingly profane. One of the main issues in the suit (aside from the dismissal of a former AutoAdmit exec, who has since countersued) has been the efforts by the plaintiffs to learn the true names of the anonymous commenters, in some cases via subpoenas to ISPs. That led to some interesting litigation over whether the right to comment anonymously trumped the plaintiffs' ability to subpoena the identity of anonymous commenters from ISPs.
Anyway, Marc Randazza (who has covered the case diligently, and who at one point ably represented the dismissed former exec) has teh latest, in which the plaintiffs have filed an amended complaint naming one of the anonymous commenters as Matthew C. Ryan, later further identified as a senior math major at the University of Texas, Austin. Here are some of the things Matthew C. Ryan said under the cover of anonymity about two young women he never met:
"just don't FUCK her, she has herpes"
"dirty whore" "ugly whore" "ho"
"I'm doing cartwheels knowing this stupid Jew bitch is getting her self-esteem raped."
"stupid cunt" "STUPID FUCKING CUNT" "silcon tit'd whore"
. . . and so forth.
Matthew C. Ryan is now, one hopes, on his way to becoming a social pariah in his school, home, and community as people evaluate his character based on his words. And good riddance. I've argued before that social sanctions — the natural and probable consequences of one's own words — are an entirely appropriate element of the marketplace of ideas. Racist, misogynist little douchebags like Matthew C. Ryan should spent the rest of their college careers shunned from polite company, and the next ten years wondering nervously when someone is going to Google them.
Substantially more complex is the question of the mechanism by which such people should be outed. Marc Randazza favors (not entirely satirically, I think) bounties. As I've said before, I favor inventive online investigation and social engineering to out them. I agree with the emerging legal consensus that courts should only permit subpoenas for the identity of anonymous commenters when the plaintiffs can make a prima facie showing that they have a valid cause of action. As to Matthew C. Ryan, I think that's in some doubt. Leaving aside the flaws in the plaintiffs' federal claims that Prof. Randazza has addressed, I think a defamation claim against Ryan is questionable because very little on a site like AutoAdmit can be reasonably interpreted as literally true, and because I think anonymous internet insults, however vile, fall short of the sort of outrageous conduct necessary to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, I feel no sympathy for Ryan, and think that the free speech impact of the ruling has been exaggerated by the lawyers for the anonymous commenters.
By the way, I share in the annoyance of several commentators who think that the plaintiffs here could have thrown in a few more details about this Matthew C. Ryan (for instance, that he is currently a math major at UT Austin) to help distinguish him from an entirely innocent and well-respected attorney in Texas by the same name. That Mr. Ryan deserves sympathy. The student Ryan deserves scorn, and will get it.
Edited on 8/9/08 to add: Since I posted this we've drawn a lot of hits from AutoAdmit, where several threads linked us. One guy in particular has followed the link here a number of times and attempted to post racial slurs. He hasn't quite figured out that we're deleting them before they are posted. But I give him points for persistence; he's still trying. Keep going, little troll, keep going! Even though all of your posts have been deleted so far, maybe one will get through!
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