Website that rates women sparks legal battle

March 6, 2008 8:25:55 PM PST
A University of Pennsylvania law graduate who lost a lucrative job offer after he was linked to Web sites that crudely discussed female law students has countersued two of the women subjects. Anthony Ciolli's libel suit charges that the Yale Law School students sued him although they knew he did not control the message boards at either, where he was an editor, or at a now-defunct site that ranked the looks of top women law students.

The lawsuits renew debate about whether anonymous Internet scribes should be outed - and held legally responsible - for malicious online postings.

The women's suit, filed in federal court in Connecticut last year, charges that they were defamed by repeated postings they deemed sexually harassing and threatening.

The posts included remarks about one plaintiff's breasts and a claim that women with the same first names "should be raped."

Other postings discussed the women's family backgrounds and supposed sexual exploits while invoking racially and sexually charged slurs.

In sworn affidavits, the women say the stress caused their work to suffer at school and on the job. Their classmates and job supervisors were aware of the salacious postings, they said.

"As a result of the stress, anxiety, and insomnia that I suffered, I withdrew socially and often isolated myself from my friends at school. ... My academic performance also deteriorated," one woman wrote. She ultimately took a leave of absence from Yale last term, she said.

The person who allegedly wrote the rape comment, meanwhile, is fighting a subpoena to have his Internet provider disclose his identity. In a motion filed under his online name, "John Doe 21," he argues that the rape remark did not specifically harm or threaten either women since millions of women share their first names.

He calls the online postings "unsavory but legally innocuous" - and argues that his free-speech rights outweigh the women's right to seek redress.

"Few courts have considered this question, but it is becoming a crucial one, particularly in light of the increasing number of cases where those who have been criticized on the Internet seek to use the machinery of the courts to unmask, intimidate and silence their online critics," he wrote in the motion, filed in the Connecticut case last month.

The judge overseeing that case has agreed to let the women proceed under pseudonyms because of their fears of further harassment. No trial date has been set.

They dropped Ciolli as a defendant in November, leaving AutoAdmit's founder and numerous alleged anonymous posters as defendants.

A listing for Ciolli, who graduated from Penn law school in May 2007, could not be determined. In the suit filed Tuesday, he said he lost a $160,000 job offer from a Boston firm where he worked the previous summer because of negative publicity about AutoAdmit and T14 Talent, the site that discussed women at 14 top law schools - and allegedly used Ciolli's name on its pages. He sued the women, their lawyers and T14, among others, charging libel, slander and defamation.

Ciolli's lawyer, Mark E. Jakubik of Philadelphia, did not return messages Thursday.

Stanford University law professor Mark Lemley, one of several lawyers representing the women, also did not return messages left Thursday. Another lawyer on the case, David N. Rosen of New Haven, Ct., was out of the country, his office said.