Friday, June 26, 2009

You Read What About Me on the Internet?!: Anonymous Online Libel

From The

The internet is the Wild West of free-flowing information-few rules apply and everyone is trying to stake their claim. To many, the internet is the quintessence of free speech and the First Amendment. Others worry that this free expression-shielded by user names and faceless aliases-allows otherwise respectful people to unabashedly malign their colleagues. This mix of free speech and anonymity is potentially explosive, as has recently been the case with several message-board sites.

Several years ago, two female Yale Law students named Brittan Heller and Heide Iravani found shocking posts on, the self-proclaimed “most prestigious law-school discussion board in the world.” The postings alleged that the women had sexually transmitted diseases and had used bribery and sex to advance in law school. These allegations were damaging to these women, who understood that many legal employers use Google as a means of performing a background check. After being rejected from all positions for which she applied, one of the women asked to take down the posts. When they repeatedly refused, the two women teamed up and sought legal redress. In August 2007, Heller and Iravani brought suit against dozens of their online tormenters in a New Haven federal court. The women sought monetary damages, but ultimately the suit was an effort to clear their names and protect their legal careers. Yet they also sent a message to others: you will be held accountable for what you write online.

The women brought suit under the claim of libel. Libel, a subcategory of defamation, is a derogatory statement made in a printed or fixed medium, such as a magazine or newspaper. The elements of a libel cause of action include: a false and defamatory statement concerning another; the unprivileged publication of the statement to a third party (that is, somebody other than the person defamed by the statement); and damage to the plaintiff. Material that is factually accurate is not libel. Also, context matters: courts have held that given the nature of online forums, online comments cannot be taken as seriously as those made in real life or in the media. Because of these requirements, bringing a claim for internet libel is a challenge. was created as an alternative to the Princeton Review’s website for candidates seeking admission to law school. While the Princeton Review monitored and removed problematic content from their site,’s founder, Jarret Cohen, and his assistant Anthony Ciolli advertised that, “no thread, ever, would get vaporized by the thought police.” True to their word, Mr. Cohen and his assistants rarely removed threads, even when expressly asked to do so.

Websites such as or provide a forum for comments on essentially any topic imaginable. Hidden behind the shield of a screen name, users of these sites are emboldened to post without fear of backlash or accountability. Other websites actually encourage libelous and defamatory content from users. Proponents of free speech on the internet argue that the internet is a unique medium-the modern town square for the free exchange of ideas.

Regardless of their form, what all of these sites have in common is that they are merely intermediaries; they do not generate the content that they broadcast. Many of them do not monitor posts and even fewer are likely to take down libelous content on their own. For sites that will remove content when asked, the libeled party often learns about the material after it is too late and the comments have already created harm.

Full article can be found here.

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