Posted by Denis Cummings to findingDulcinea.com
A pair of female Yale Law School graduates suing message board posters for online harassment have won the right to reveal the posters’ identities in court.
AutoAdmit, or xoxohth, is a popular online forum for law school students and graduates. It is loosely moderated and filled with offensive material, including racist, anti-Semitic and sexist posts.
A female student at Yale Law School became the target of abuse in 2005, with users making sexually-explicit, threatening remarks. A second female student would receive similar abuse in a thread two years later.
On June 12, 2007, the two students filed a lawsuit, alleging defamation, against a site administrator and many anonymous posters. The plaintiffs were able to uncover the identity of a poster, “AK47,” through a subpoena to his Internet service provider. AK47 filed a motion to quash the subpoena, arguing that it violated his “constitutionally protected right to speak anonymously,” but the motion was denied in June and his name is set to become public.
The decision was applauded by many who see it as a blow against online harassment. “Libel, slander and defamation are actionable, and you don’t get to say whatever you want about someone without consequences just because you post it on the internet under a fake name,” writes Feministe’s Jill Filipovic.
But others have argued that it violates the posters’ rights to free speech, however offensive their speech might be. Law professor Ann Althouse asks, “Isn’t ‘the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe’ exactly what we always used to say people had to put up with in a free country?”
The results of the case will play a large role in determining the right to free speech on the Internet. Even if the lawsuit fails, the outing of anonymous posters may cause others to think twice before posting offensive remarks. “It might remind some potential would-be defamers that their anonymity may not be secure,” says UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
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