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Friday, March 09, 2007

Ciolli, Lat, Prawfs, Leiter...

Yesterday at lunch the subject came up about the current backlash against a Penn Law student and his friend who own and started the law student website Autoadmit. In case you didn't see it, Dave Hoffman at Co-Op wrote something about the site a while back and has been maintaining his interest. The site serves as a host to discussions about all sorts of things for anxious law students or pre-law students. Some (many?) of these discussion threads involve horrifically denigrating language.

The other day, the WaPo had a piece about the site and the pernicious effects its having on some women (and perhaps some men too) who have been victims to various venomous comments on its unmoderated anonymous discussion boards. The concerns raised by these victims is that they are being cyber-stalked and/or subject to harassment. Brian Leiter has in the past registered his contempt for the Autoadmit website. I too find many of the threads I've seen to be deplorable.

The question I have is whether and how we can distinguish Ciolli/Cohen's website from Dave Lat's Above The Law, which is quickly becoming an authoritative (or at least credible--sorry Dave!) news source.

Dave makes no effort to control the comments on his threads and there are often hurtful and degrading comments made there. Dave, it appears, doesn't moderate comments because it would probably undermine his claim to safe harbor under Section 230. [Update: I wrote the preceding sentence based on some recollection of something Dave had written. I may have misinterpreted what he wrote or he may have misunderstood the law, since I am told that Section 230's safe harbor wouldn't be a problem if he did make some deletions. Thanks for the correction.] (In any event, moderating would also take a ton of time to do, given his traffic.) So between Dave's posts, which on occasion stray into the personal and intrusive (though still somewhat interesting (to me at least)), and his comments, which often go places I know he wouldn't endorse, I can't see why one would be categorically tougher on Autoadmit (which doesn't even have a blogger at the center of discussion) than sites like Above the Law, which I confess is one of my favorite sites these days. The main difference I see is that Above the Law has not yet degenerated in terms of scale and degree into the hellhole that Autoadmit (often) is. It also bears mention that Lat is doing, in general, a very good job of reporting on developments in the legal community and so more "good content" should excuse some of the bad content that appears in the comments or in other posts.

Structurally, my sense is that these unmoderated discussion boards are "dangerous" the way free speech is generally. If that's the case, I wonder if the implication is that we should be more contemptuous of ATL or less so of the owners of Autoadmit? Would we think that if Lat were back at Yale Law School, doing what he does now, there would be a basis for dismissing him from the academic community, the way some are suggesting Ciolli should be? And yes, I understand that as a free speech matter, no one is suggesting there's a legal claim to quell these discussion boards. I take the issue to be what can be expected of reasonable people opting to live together in concert in a smaller community, such as a university?

Obviously, another question is comments in blogs generally, or ones like Prawfs in particular. Our policy has been somewhat ad hoc; I will delete comments that I think are remotely in poor taste or ad hominem, but there are times when I or other writers for Prawfs have not exercised proper judgment in that respect, either by being over-inclusive or under-inclusive. Other blogs in our nook of the 'sphere have virtually no comments (Leiter and Solum). I think Prawfs has struck a good balance but we're "lucky" that we don't have the traffic of ATL or Autoadmit. It would be a lot harder to maintain quality if we spent our days hanging on the "delete" key.

Update: I sent this post to a few people, including Anthony Ciolli, before posting it. Ciolli contested some of the claims made against him (by others) regarding his control of the website's discussion boards and denied that he failed to reply to the requests of some victims of Autoadmit. How much to credit these claims is contestable (since at least according to a couple emails I received after I initially posted this, Ciolli's role was disputed). I'm not interested in shilling for Ciolli or for Lat, but just raising some questions here about hosting-responsibility in a moral community. Because this is a controversial issue where tempers seem to flare quickly, I'm going to turn off comments on this thread, but if you have something you want to say in response, please feel free to email me at the prawfsblawg gmail address and if there are some interesting comments in response, I'll have something further on this later on. Thanks.

Posted by Dan Markel on March 9, 2007 at 04:08 PM in Blogging | Permalink

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