NEW HAVEN, Conn. Two female students at Yale Law School who say anonymous, defamatory comments were made about them on the Internet identified one of the defendants in their federal lawsuit for the first time yesterday.
The women filed new documents in U.S. District Court naming Mathew C. Ryan of Austin, Texas.
Through subpoenas to Internet service providers, the women have learned the real identities of several other defendants, but are trying to resolve their claims against those people before deciding whether to name them, according to court papers.
The move threatens to expose law students and renews debate about whether anonymous Internet scribes should be outed and held legally responsible for malicious online postings. The case is not unprecedented, but it is a reminder that anonymous postings on the freewheeling Internet can be traced, legal experts say.
"A lot of people don't really think about that," said Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School. "I do think it's going to have an effect on what people say. It's one of the most prominent cases of its type."
The women's lawsuit, filed last year, charges that they were defamed by repeated postings they deemed sexually harassing and threatening. The postings were made to AutoAdmit, an Internet discussion board about colleges and law schools that draws 800,000 to 1 million visitors per month, according to court papers. The women say Ryan made sexually charged slurs about them on the Web, including a false claim that one of the women had a sexually transmitted disease. The lawsuit also alleges that Ryan encouraged further attacks on the other woman and used anti-Semitic language.
A telephone message and e-mail seeking comment were left for Ryan yesterday.
Ryan attended the University of Texas, according to Mark Lemley, attorney for the Yale students. Most of the other defendants are law students, he said.
Other posts by other defendants included remarks about one plaintiff's breasts and a claim that women who share certain first names "should be raped." Some postings discussed the women's family backgrounds and supposed sexual exploits while invoking racially and sexually charged slurs.
Some people who posted the Web items threatened to rape one of the women, claimed she got a poor score on the law-school test and attempted to start rumors that one of the women had died or committed suicide, according to the lawsuit. The anonymous posters also started a Web site devoted to "rating" female law students from around the country. Some participants in the contest sent photos of one of the women without her permission, according to the lawsuit.
The judge overseeing the women's lawsuit has agreed to let them proceed under pseudonyms because of their fears of further harassment. No trial date has been set.
The lawsuit sparked a countersuit from a University of Pennsylvania law graduate who lost a lucrative job offer after he was linked to Web sites that crudely discussed the female law students.
Anthony Ciolli's libel lawsuit charges that the Yale students sued him although they knew he did not control the message boards at either AutoAdmit.com, where he was an editor, or at a now-defunct site that ranked the looks of top female law students. The women dropped Ciolli as a defendant in November, leaving numerous alleged anonymous posters as defendants.
In sworn affidavits, the women say the stress caused their work to suffer at school and on the job and one took a leave of absence from school. Their classmates and job supervisors were aware of the salacious postings, they said.
The person who allegedly wrote the rape comment fought a subpoena to have his Internet provider disclose his identity. In a motion filed under his online name, "John Doe 21," he argued that the rape remark did not specifically harm or threaten either woman since millions of women share certain first names.
He calls the online postings "unsavory but legally innocuous" and argues that his free-speech rights outweigh the women's right to seek redress.
"Few courts have considered this question, but it is becoming a crucial one, particularly in light of the increasing number of cases where those who have been criticized on the Internet seek to use the machinery of the courts to unmask, intimidate and silence their online critics," he wrote earlier this year.
A judge ruled in June that the women had shown enough evidence to support a libel case.