To hear the Washington Post tell it today, going to law school as a woman sounds kind of like high school ... just much, much more expensive. Several female students, at some of the country's most prestigious law schools, have reported all stripes of online harassment from fellow students. The harassment typically ranges from public rating of the "hottest" female law students -- along with their photos and full names -- to gossip about a student's sex life or the STDs she has.
A Yale law student told the Post that her full name and photo were posted on AutoAdmit, a message board for law students, resulting in a group analysis of her breasts. The same woman unwittingly found herself included in a contest to determine the hottest female law students in the country. She said it was "as if they're stealing part of my character from me." Sometimes it goes way beyond sophomoric games: The same student stumbled upon a competition to snap a candid photo of her at the gym. Another Yale student was threatened with sexual assault. "I didn't understand what I'd done to deserve it," she said. "I also felt kind of scared because it was someone in my community who was threatening physical and sexual violence and I didn't know who."
What's more, all this chatter is easily -- possibly eternally -- accessible to Googling grandparents and potential employees alike. Some claim that they've missed out on job opportunities because of being the center of online debates. (Apparently, employers need know only that a student is a source of controversy -- never mind investigating the accuracy or relevancy of the chatter.)
The owners of AutoAdmit -- a law student and insurance agent -- say they're "very strong believers in the freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas" and generally refuse to censor content. Plus, they say traffic is driven by unmediated and anonymous debate -- including racist and sexist tirades. (Sex jokes about female Holocaust victims included!)
The students are left with little recourse, since site administrators aren't legally responsible for content posted by visitors. (And, as an Internet libertarian, I think that's a good thing.) But Kurt Opsahl, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the real, live cowards hiding behind those user names can in fact be sued for defamation.
Luckily, I suppose, these law students are better equipped than most to begin that lengthy legal battle.