The Washington Post featured an article last week,"Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web: Law Students Feel Lasting Effects of Anonymous Attacks"
about a group of female law student targeted by malicious anonymous posters in an online forum.
One of the victim discovered the site when she investigated (i.e. Googled her name) why no one is hiring her despite her excellent academic performance. She found that participants of the forum had posted her name and pictures (taken from her Facebook pages), threatened physical and sexual violence, pretended to be her, ridiculed and objectified her. She was not alone. Dozens of other female law students were also similarly treated.
The forum, Law section in AutoAdmit.com (also uses the domain name xoxohth.com) is run by a 3rd year law student and an insurance agent. The forum owners defends their decision not to moderate or censor the the defamatory, sexist and racist posts of their users on First Amendment and freedom of expression.
Responsible moderators of such forums and other community blogs should, as an unwritten rule of netiquette, make sure that their members behave. It is ridiculous that a 3rd year law student would not know that there are limitations to the 1st Amendment such as hate speech, threats, obscenity, etc. These limitations also apply to online speech, even anonymous commenters. The offensive statements in the forum about these female law students could constitute defamation and the authors of these comments would be liable legally.
The fact that these particular statements were made anonymously may hinder or make it difficult for the victims to sue the individual posters. However, there is a recent decision by a Philadelphia judge ruling that "defamatory and libelous speech enjoys no constitutional protection."
That case which is strikingly analogous to our female law students' dilemna, Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg & Ellers v. JPA Development Inc.
, the Philadelphia judge ordered the owner of the website to turn over the identities of the anonymous authors of comments that allegedly defamed a Philadelphia law firm.
While it may be difficult, the victims or the targets of the attacks could bring a defamation suit, not unlike the suit against Don'tDateHimGirl.com
In any case, it just shows that the owners of the Autoadmit discussion board are or have bad moderators who clearly don't understand netiquette and the dynamics of anonymous posting.
1. It is internet culture that moderators have absolute control over what is being posted in their turf. They can delete posts that do not follow the rules or violate the standards they have set. Responsible moderators do remove abusive posts.
2. Free speech refute free speech. While this might work for off-web speech, the moderator is just asking for a flame war. This deluge of speech will not guarantee what the courts would call a "meaningful exchange of ideas".
3. Anonymous posters should not be given credit or taken seriously. These are most likely trolls and sockpuppets who want to wank, spam or start a flame in your forum. If they are speaking the truth, they will post it under their own name.
Lastly, I completely agree with Atty. Eric Eden that "on the internet...abnormal behavior is the status quo." Moderators should take that into account on how they control and supervise their participants. Bloggers/commenters, anonymous or not should know/remember that there are legal consequences of abusing or harrassing someone online. Anonymity does not equal complete abdication of the law.