In the latest chapter of the AutoAdmit.com scandal, two female Yale Law School students have sued Anthony Ciolli, the Web site’s former “chief educational director,” and more than two dozen others who allegedly used pseudonyms and posted the students’ photos as well as defamatory and threatening remarks about them on the online law-school discussion forum....So this is the 21st century? Where courts award punitive damages for offensive words and pictures? Isn't "the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe" exactly what we always used to say people had to put up with in a free country? Man, that was so 20th century!
The law students aren’t named in the suit — filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Connecticut — which claims the defendants violated copyright infringement by posting photos of one of the women without her permission, falsely posing as the women in posts on the site, and engaging in “unreasonable publicity given to another’s life; publicity that places another in a false light before the public; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; and defamation.”
The complaint asks for judgment against the defendants for unspecified damages as well as punitive damages in the amount of $245,400. Besides Ciolli, named defendants include individuals with pseudonyms such as “Pauliewalnuts” and “The Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah.”
“It’s bringing the right to protect yourself against offensive words and images into the 21st century,” said David N. Rosen, a New Haven, Conn.-based attorney for the students and a senior research scholar in law at Yale Law to the Law Blog in an interview. “This is the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe,” he said of the postings about the women on AutoAdmit.
ADDED: Over at AutoAdmit, they're trashing the complaint.
MORE: Glenn Reynolds: "Stuff that offends dumb hicks in the heartland is constitutionally protected. Stuff that offends Yale Law Students must be stamped out!" Yeah, really.
And in the comments Bruce Hayden raises a damned good question about the copyright claim (which is the whole basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction in the complaint (PDF)): "Copyright protects original expression. Thus, the photographer would be the copyright owner, not the subject of the photographs." I'm not a copyright expert, and I'm not writing this as anyone's lawyer -- I'm retired from the practice of law -- but it looks to me as though the copyright claim is completely frivolous, and all the other claims are state law claims. Subject matter jurisdiction is based only on federal question jurisdiction, not diversity of citizenship, so all those state law claims are in federal court because they are supplemental to the federal claim. Under § 1367(c), then, when the copyright claim is tossed out, the whole case should be dismissed. Unless our fearless lawyer refiles in state court, we'll never get to hash out all the interesting free speech issues. But then, this case should never have been filed. So, much as I'd like to see a strong precedent protecting offensive speech, it will be good to see this nipped in the bud.
AND: The complaint does assert that one of the plaintiffs owns the copyright in the photographs that are the basis of the copyright claims. It appears that the plaintiff acquired the copyrights in preparation for the lawsuit, and I'll leave it to copyright experts to say more about that, but the question I want to raise is: If the plaintiff(s) did not own the copyrights at the same time as the other incidents alleged in the complaint, how can the copyright infringement be part of the same constitutional case as all the state law tort claims under §1367(a)? That is, how can the federal court have jurisdiction over anything but the copyright claims?
ONE MORE THING: This post originated as a response to the lawyer's phrase "the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe." I want to see "the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe" protected. That doesn't mean I support defamation or the revelation of private facts or impersonating someone by name on a website. Those are different matters, and I don't mean to express an opinion as to whether any torts like that are alleged in the complaint. I just want to remind people to keep our free speech bearings. We have lost our way if we've forgotten the importance of protecting speech that is "scummy" and "offensive" and "tripe."
ADDED: Eugene Volokh has a detailed post on many of the fine points of liability.