03/07: Did online gossip sink law student's career? By Lindsay Beyerstein, freelance journalist


21.04.2007 - 12:29

he Washington Post has a story about a high-powered female law student whose career may have been torpedoed by online gossip:

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.

Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search. [WaPo]

The women may have been penalized for what other people said about them online. It's one thing to be held responsible for your own statements, especially if you publish them under your own name on your personal blog. If this woman's career was damaged by what other people said about her in chat rooms, it's simply outrageous.

The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as "the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world." It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets' dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google's powerful search engine. [WaPo]

I'd sure like to think that top law firms aren't using online rape threats to penalize the victims:

The chats sometimes include photos taken from women's Facebook pages, and in the Yale student's case, one person threatened to sexually violate her. Another participant claimed to be the student, making it appear that she was taking part in the discussion. [WaPo]

This anecdote says a lot about the culture of AutoAdmit and the attitude of its founders, who go on to insist that female law students are inviting ridicule simply by maintaining innocent Flickr and Facebook profiles.

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site -- with links posted on AutoAdmit chats -- to select the "hottest" female law student at "Top 14" law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

"I felt completely objectified," that woman said. It was, she said, "as if they're stealing part of my character from me." The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.

Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the "Top 14" for privacy concerns, Cohen said. "I think we deserve a golden star for what we did," Cohen said. (Emphasis added.) [WaPo]

What's even more outrageous is that the site requires its own posters to use pseuds, but allows these pseudonymous posters to refer to others by name.

Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them." [WaPo]

Ann Althouse is predictably unsympathetic to the plight of the woman whose breasts inspired malicious gossip and threats of stalking:

Too beautiful to appear in public? Too hot to be hired? Come on! What rational employer would deny you a job because idiots chatted about you on line in a way that made if obvious that the only thing you did was look good?

What rational employer would care what anonymous twerps on a message board said about a woman's body? No rational employer would.* However, as the entire history of civilization illustrates, people are sometimes, uh, less than rational when it comes to human sexuality and gossip pertaining thereto. If this story is any indication, law firms don't make their hiring decisions rationally.

Update: Jill of Feministe was harassed by the same cretinous crew at AutoAdmit.

Update II: Aeroman argues that discriminating against applicants based on online gossip is morally wrong, but not necessarily irrational from a firm's perspective. I'm not sure how many prospective clients would care that their attorney got ogled by sleazy law students online without her consent. Some probably would, but I don't think that kind of gossip would major stumbling block for most clients. It's not like the attorney did anything unprofessional. Anyone's picture can be the topic of conversation online these days.