Interesting update on the AutoAdmit case. AutoAdmit was a message board in which posters who believed they were anonymous said the most remarkably foul and rude things about women attending Yale Law School:
When it comes to Heller and Iravani, some of [the postings] were unique all right: uniquely sadistic, subjecting the women to what can only be called a cyber-stoning, in which participants vied to hurl the biggest rock. They wrote, falsely, that Heller has herpes and had bribed her way into Yale—helped by a secret lesbian affair with the dean of admissions—and that Iravani has gonorrhea, is addicted to heroin, and had exchanged oral sex with Yale Law School’s dean for a passing grade in civil procedure.
I see no freedom of speech issue in such false and defamatory statements. There is a good legal argument for the immunity of the owner of the site. But the posters who said such ugly and untrue things have no defense at all, nor should they. (I have previously disagreed with a couple of law professors who denigrated the lawsuits here.)
The update on the various lawsuits provides an object lesson for people who think they can type any old false thing they like on the Internet and rely on their complete anonymity:
Now the challenge before the women was to smoke out the defendants’ identities. . . . [S]ome of the defendants could easily be found through prior postings, and some emerged in other ways. One, Vincimus—whose description of Iravani in the gym was surely one of the most innocuous of the quotes at issue—even approached Iravani on campus to confess. He is a Yale law student named Kirk Cheney, a young father who graduated from Brigham Young University. (Cheney declined to comment.) Another poster, Pauliewalnuts, who helped run the online beauty contest, is a recent Seton Hall graduate named Douglas Phillibaum. And Whamo, who had suggested that Iravani had “the clap,” is a University of Iowa undergraduate named Joe Traw.
More than the others, Traw has made his anguish over what he’d done a matter of public record, continuing to post and veering between incredulity, defiance, contrition, and abject terror. “I didn’t mean to say anything bad,” he wrote importunately. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. What the fuck do I do when I hate myself this much?” Perhaps, he thought, he’d drop out of school and go fight in Iraq. At least there, he wrote, he could die for a far worthier cause than defending what he’d done. “What I said about her was absolutely terrible, and I deserve to have my life ruined,” he wrote. When I spoke with him months later, he was still emphatically rebuking himself. He said he’d shelved plans for law school and was indeed enlisting in the military. “I said something really stupid on the fucking internet, I typed for literally, like, 12 seconds, and it devastated my life,” he told me.
. . . .
AK47, the defendant who had said that women named Heide should be raped, was frantic over being sued. (His real name remains known only to the plaintiffs.) “I beg you to release me from this lawsuit,” he wrote the two women, in a letter that then became part of the court file. “AutoAdmit is a fantastic waste of time, and indeed ought to be shut down, lest this sort of thing happen again. That said, I cannot and will not be dragged into this huge mess simply because I made an inane, nonthreatening and certainly nonactionable comment on the site.” His posting was, he insisted, “a suggestion, not a threat.” He warned that he would lose his job if outed; he threatened to seek help online to corroborate all of the awful things said about the two women in order to defend himself.
Heller and Iravani indeed have a formidable weapon in their arsenal: The ability to wreak havoc in the lives and careers of anyone they identify. Faced with embarrassment or ruin, Cheney, Phillibaum, and Traw quietly caved, paying amounts somewhere in the low to mid four figures in exchange for promises from the plaintiffs not to publicize who they were.
The people who will not take heed, apparently, are the losers. But as Bob Dylan said: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
For Matthew Ryan—whose alter ego, , claimed that Heller had herpes—the lawsuit seems to pose little concern. According to what he subsequently wrote on the message board, he had no money or reputation to defend. “I’m giddy over meeting my cheerful, big-titted accuser in court,” he wrote. Ryan, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, is trying to get his case dismissed, but he’s fine with going to trial—“I’m not a fan of frivolous, abusive litigation,” he told me—especially since his parents’ homeowner’s policy seems to cover his defense. Lemley says the case against Ryan is the women’s strongest: “When we get to trial, the only question is going to be the amount of damages.”
The lesson is: you may not be anonymous. So watch what you say — at least, if you don’t plan to be a loser all your life.