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Yale Law Grads Settle Internet Defamation Lawsuit

By EDMUND H. MAHONY

The Hartford Courant

October 22, 2009

Two former Yale University law school students have quietly settled a high-profile lawsuit they brought against about two dozen anonymous authors who the students said defamed and threatened them by posting malicious falsehoods on an Internet message board.

The terms under which the suit was resolved are confidential, and lawyers representing the former students, Heide Iravani and Brittan Heller, would not discuss them. Court records and lawyers who followed the litigation said attorneys for the women were able to identify eight or nine of the anonymous posters and settled with some of them.

"We settled with a handful of folks," said San Francisco attorney Ashok Ramani, whose firm, Keker & Van Nest, represented the women at no charge. "Our clients are very pleased with how the case went and I have no further comment."

The women, who have completed law school and who did not respond to telephone inquiries, sued for monetary damages in U.S. District Court in Hartford, claiming defamation by anonymous posters to AutoAdmit, an Internet discussion site frequented by law students and used as a research tool by law firm recruiters. One of the women said in the suit that false material posted on AutoAdmit cost her a legal internship.

AutoAdmit advertises itself as "The most prestigious law school discussion board in the world." Many of the postings at the center of the suit took the form of crude sexual allegations.

When the women sued in 2007, they created a stir among experts in the emerging field of Internet law. Some speculated that a suit by two accomplished Ivy League students could create pressure to change existing law in a way that could impose greater accountability on people who post material on widely read Internet sites.

Internet sites such as Google and AutoAdmit operate under different rules from those that apply to printed newspapers and to TV broadcasts.

Individuals claiming to be victimized by falsehoods or defamatory statements published or broadcast by newspapers or TV stations can sue. But Congress, hoping to encourage the exchange or ideas on the Internet, enacted law in the 1990s that characterizes websites as intermediaries and protects those that carry defamatory postings from lawsuits. Victims are left with the daunting option of trying to identify and bring suit against anonymous posters.

Much of the litigation associated with the suit by the two law students turned on their efforts to identify such posters. But the confidentiality order imposed on any settlements in the case left Internet experts unwilling to speculate on what effect the suit may have on Internet civility.

Brian Leiter, an AutoAdmit critic and University of Chicago law professor, said he was unaware of the resolution of the case and declined to discuss its possible impact.

But David N. Rosen, a New Haven attorney who also represented the women, said the suit's success in tracking down reckless Internet posters who hide behind a veil of anonymity could lead to self-policing among posters.

"That knowledge could lead to greater accountability when the posters know they can be outed and held responsible for what they write," Rosen said.

Some of the material written about the two students was vicious and apparently posted by students with whom they had, at best, only a passing acquaintance.

The authors of the screeds wrote under names such as Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey, Pauliewalnuts and Sleazy Z. The postings suggest that some of the offending authors were students at some of the nation's most prestigious law schools, including Yale's.

The lawsuit claimed that the authors of the scurrilous material posted it "for the sheer joy of destruction."

The two women late last week dismissed their complaint against all defendants in the suit but did so with the caveat that the complaint can be reinstated if further information is developed in the future.