UPDATE: If you are coming here from the delusional and defamatory "response" ("Why Brian Leiter Hates Us") of Anthony Ciolli and Jarret Cohen, the administrators of the xoxohth/autoadmit discussion board, please click here to learn the facts. The original posting, to which they fail to respond, appears below.
UPDATE 2007: The denoument for Mr. Ciolli and his involvement in the disgraceful Autoadmit site.
Here. We encountered this discussion board once last year, in connection with the student frenzy over the annual US News law school rankings. But it turns out the board may be more notable (now, notorious) for being a massive forum for bizarre racist, anti-semitic, and viciously sexist postings, mixed in with posts genuinely related to law school. Mr. Ciolli and his co-administrator of the site, Jarrett Cohen (who may also be a law student, it's not clear) claim, somewhat disingenuously, that the racist and anti-semitic "threads are a very small fraction of the site, and even in those threads the overwhelming majority of posters are responding to the racists harshly." A quick perusal of the site suggests neither claim is true.
(STOP READING: BRACE YOURSELF FOR A LOT OF VULGAR LANGUAGE IF YOU CONTINUE ON!)
There appear to be, for example, roughly 250 threads with the word "nigger" in the subject line (double that number if you include "blacks"), including an average of 1 or 2 such threads every single day for the last couple of months! Contrast that with a mere 150 threads discussing "UCLA" and only 100+ on "clerkships" and "Georgetown", all topics one might have expected to command as much or more attention on a prelaw discussion board than racist abuse.
There are, in addition, some 350 threads about Jews, and while some are benign, the majority appear to be of the variety "Are Jews Smarter, or Just Craftier?" and "Did jew bitches give blowjobs in Auschwitz for the protein?," the latter of which introduces another feature of the site perhaps even more prevalent than the racism and anti-semitism, its vulgar and abusive sexism, evident, for example, in the more than 300 threads about "bitches" and another nearly 300 with "cunt" in the subject line, not to mention dozens of links to pornographic sites. (This just scratches the surface of the sexist abuse on the site, as perusal of a single day's threads will reveal.) And the racism, anti-semitism, and sexism wouldn't be complete, of course, without abusive remarks about homosexual men, as in the 200+ threads about "fags."
Messrs. Ciolli and Cohen's response to these facts: "We are very strong believers in the freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas. This is why we allow off-topic discussion and almost never censor content, no matter how abhorrent it may be." True enough, this is all constitutionally protected speech, but that isn't the issue, since Messrs. Ciolli and Cohen are not the state. My commitment to the "marketplace of ideas" doesn't require me to turn my blog over to racist psychopaths once a month, nor does it require a Penn law student to run a web site which is littered with the kind of garbage noted above. As Eugene Volokh (Law, UCLA) remarked in publicizing the racism and anti-semitism on the site:
Nongovernmental entities may and often should do things that the government may not; and their ethical rights and obligations are often more complex and context-sensitive than what we'd expect from the law.
Also, if the discussion board decided to filter out rude statements in order to make the discussions more valuable, or even to filter out evil ideas because they don't want their property used to promulgate such ideas, I wouldn't object: I think they're ethically entitled to do this, and there's no reason to condemn them for it.
Put aside ethical obligations, and let's just consider good taste and decency: how hard can it be for Messrs. Ciolli and Cohen to delete all the threads with certain words? And if they did that a few times, no doubt the infantile morons responsible for most of this garbage would give up and go elsewhere.
The Ciolli/Cohen discussion board styles itself, somewhat comically, as "the most prestigious prelaw discussion board in the world," but it is so "prestigious" that everyone posts anonymously, and for obvious reasons. (It is curious the faith people have in anonymity on the Internet: the identity of the most vile racists on that board is roughly two subpoenas away from discovery, and the consequences for, e.g., employment prospects and bar admission [where judgment and maturity are relevant factors pertaining to "fitness" to practice law] could be serious if these folks were "outed.")
It is hard to tell what volume of traffic the site actually gets: one may hope, not much! My blog, for example, gets nearly double the volume of hits from this prelaw discussion site than from the Ciolli/Cohen board (and in both cases we are talking just a few hundred hits per month), which is some hopeful evidence that other prelaw sites command more of the market for prospective and current law students. I give Messrs. Ciolli and Cohen real credit for owning up to their responsibility for this travesty, even if they have been pretending, to date, that their failure to supervise the content of the site somehow contributes to the quality of "discussion." It is striking, as one correspondent pointed out to me, that one doesn't see the same amount of racist, sexist, and anti-semitic garbage on sites frequented by aspiring graduate students in philosophy or other disciplines (even at the Ciolli/Cohen board). For the sake of the reputation of law students, let's hope that in the wake of the unflattering publicity given the Ciolli/Cohen site by Professor Volokh (and now this blog), that they will "clean up their act."
UPDATE: Thanks to the various current and former Ciolli/Cohen board readers who expressed appreciation for mine and Volokh's airing of this issue, and thanks also to those who sent yet other examples of pornographic links, abusive posts directed at other students (including other Penn law students and Penn faculty!) and other charming items from this board. I had seen a good deal of this, but saw and see no value in posting additional links, since the basic point is clear enough with the handful of examples I gave. Two students did write to make something like this point expressed by Scott Sanderson, a Northwestern law student:
I am writing to let know that I believe you have characterized the xoxo [Ciolli/Cohen] board unfairly. Like many other xoxo posters, I believe the objectionable posts are there for shock value. You didn't even raise this possibility in your blog post. Further, it was unfair to attempt to besmirch [sic] Anthony's reputation without even commenting on his law school study. Especially since it was more thorough than your own attempt to rank law schools [based on national job placement at elite firms].
I didn't, however, advance any hypothesis about the motivations or actual views of those who litter the site with the garbage noted above. No doubt Mr. Sanderson is correct that many of them aren't "really" racists or anti-semites, they're just folks who think derisive remarks about "niggers" and "crafty Jews" are amusing and who take pleasure in shocking others. That would raise, however, the very same questions about maturity and judgment, and doesn't change the fact that, as various correspondents put it, the posts are "embarrassing" and "distracting."
I'm not sure I follow the relevance of Mr. Sanderson's reference to Mr. Ciolli's "law school study"--which I take it means the item referenced in his post on Volokh's site on Friday. I have only glanced at this lengthy document, but it appears to be not only more "thorough" than anything I've done, it looks more "thorough" than anything I've ever seen on this topic. Without having studied the methodology carefully, I can say that it strikes me as an especially useful feature of this survey that it breaks down job placement success at elite firms by region of the country, which may ultimately be far more useful information for prospective law students than "national" placement per se. So kudos to Mr. Ciolli for his hard work on this project, which will no doubt be appreciated by many law school applicants. (UPDATE: A reader points out that a perhaps serious methodological problem in the study is identified here. I have no idea whether this is correct, or whether it vitiates the utility of the data collected and analyzed.)
A FINAL UPDATE: A moderator at another more grown-up prelaw site writes with some interesting perspective:
You’re probably sick of comments about the autoadmit.com/xoxohth.com debate by now, but as one of the moderators at Nontradlaw.net, I’d like to offer a perspective from the other end of the law school discussion board spectrum to that of Mr. Ciolli and Mr. Cohen, the administrators of autoadmit/xoxo.
At Nontradlaw, we start with the simple fact that we’re billing ourselves as a law school discussion site. Based upon this fact, some very simple policies have been put in place. First, the scope of acceptable topics is those related to law. This is a large universe of acceptable posts, and registered users can also post almost anything they choose, law-related or not. Nontradlaw has nothing against off-topic, non-offensive posts. More importantly, however, it allows us to gladly delete any offensive content, be it racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, or related to sex. Of course, not everything is deleted - as long as it has an anchor of relevance to law school, it often stays. This anchor is given significantly less weight as the inflammatory nature of the post increases, and we make it very clear that certain types of posts will not only be removed instantly, but will also cause the user to be banned.
Second, the site is moderated. I believe that many users of autoadmit/xoxo, in the infinite legal wisdom that most pre-law and 1L types often exhibit, think that moderation and censorship are one and the same thing, and that both are, by default, bad. I believe that many users of autoadmit/xoxo also believe that the First Amendment applies to private online discussion boards. There is a great difference between moderation and censorship - moderation allows deletion of material that is outside the universe of acceptable posts (i.e. law school, no matter how vague). We censor nothing, and by that, I mean that we don’t delete any law-related information that we don’t agree with.
A little moderation goes a long way. Sure, it ‘frightens’ off a fair number of people who believe that they have the right to post what they like, where they like, and have it remain for all to see. Quite honestly, they are not welcome at Nontradlaw, and it’s no significant loss to us - in our experience, those who shy away from moderated areas do so because they want to post inappropriate content and get away with it. But while it cuts down on traffic (which, in itself, is not significant, since it’s not traffic we court), it increases quality. As you mention in your recent blog entry, there is little quality information at autoadmit/xoxo relative to the number of posts. A brief glance at Nontradlaw will reveal a very large database of posts spanning many years, with no offensive material and very little irrelevant material. Yes, we don’t have the traffic that autoadmit/xoxo has, but in terms of quality information, I have no doubt that Nontradlaw holds its own against such places.
Nontradlaw stands by its policy of requiring users who wish to post in the main area to register, have their registration information approved by hand, and to have no users registered from anonymous e-mail accounts (e.g. Hotmail, Yahoo!) And once again, while this decreases the number of posts, I have no doubt that most who do not wish to register are intent on causing trouble. For the small handful of genuine users who simply do not wish to register, we also offer a board for unregistered users.
The strange thing is that even our unregistered user board (where anyone can post with no registration) stays clean, racism-free, and pleasant to read. To be fair, when things get out of hand on the unregistered side (which is rare), posts are deleted.
Autoadmit/xoxo appears to believe that traffic is the be-all and end-all of
success on the Internet. To some extent, this is true. While Nontradlaw
struggled with low numbers of users in its early days, the quality information now contained within the site and the reputation it has developed for being on-point, friendly, and non-intimidating has increased traffic. Even so, who cares? Nontradlaw is not competing with any other site - it offers a niche community for nontraditional law students and applicants (and has picked up many regular applicant users who are sick of wading through the offensive content at autoadmit/xoxo in search of good information.) If high traffic brings high numbers of unstable characters, then Nontradlaw is happy to have moderate traffic and to not become a magnet for inappropriate content.
Nontradlaw also has a policy that the content of the site should be able to be read comfortably in the workplace (where many nontraditional applicants are), and should be able to be read comfortably at home (where many nontraditional applicants may be using the Internet with their children in the same room.) Prudish? Perhaps. But again, it all boils down to quality over quantity, and showing a little responsibility to society at large by not providing another forum for unnecessary hatred, disturbing content, and obscenity.
Continuing the sermon, Nontradlaw also believes that a person’s entry to the legal profession starts the moment they decide to attend law school, not the moment they pass the Bar exam. Following this, we expect our users to act professionally from the word go. We all know that the legal profession has a disgraceful reputation (undeserved in my opinion, although looking at autoadmit/xoxo, you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise), and Nontradlaw doesn’t want to have anything on the site that would give the general public any more ammunition to fuel this belief. I personally find it irresponsible that the ‘most prestigious’ law discussion site ‘in the world’ allows such vile content to be posted day after day after day, giving anyone who stumbles upon the site the impression that our future lawyers are racist, anti-Semitic, and perverted. What a great way to boost the stature of the legal profession.
On a final note, many people find it hard to trust information coming from
people with extreme beliefs, regardless what that information relates to. If, for instance, you were to stand up in front of your class one day and tell your students, “I hate black people. I hate Jews. I have enormous genitals, and I also had sex with all of your mothers last night after snorting more cocaine than I have ever had before. Here’s a picture of one student’s father, and my god, is he the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. I’d like to kill him. Now, how about we study some philosophy?” (of course, substituting my somewhat clean words with the filthiest and most offensive you can muster), would you expect your students to place any trust in you as a source of academic information? You would, of course, still possess the same academic knowledge whether or not you held such beliefs, but the fact that you even aired those beliefs will cause many students to distrust you more widely, and this distrust will spill over into the remainder of the classtime. Information forums are not places where the uninhibited exchange of ideas and beliefs are acceptable and beneficial - they are places where the uninhibited exchange of relevant ideas and beliefs are acceptable and beneficial. Big difference, and one that autoadmit/xoxo appears to be unaware of.
Thanks for standing up and stating that the autoadmit/xoxo emperor has no clothes.