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Smirch Engine

Publication Date: 
August 14, 2009
NPR - On The Media
Bob Garfield

Professor Mark Lemley, faculty director of the Stanford IP Litigation Clearinghouse, talks with NPR's Bob Garfield about the "online disinhibition effect." The talk show mentions Lemley's representation of two former Yale law students who were slandered online:

There’s a name for how cruel people can get given a little anonymity on the internet. It’s called “online disinhibition effect” and the resulting venom can ruin your day or worse, destroy your good name. Bob looks at the fraught relationship on the web between reputation, privacy and the law.


Mark Lemley: Google just passed one trillion websites it indexes with its search engine.

Bob Garfiled: Mark Lemley is a professor of law at Stanford University.

Mark Lemley: To create a legal regime under which Google had an obligation to check all of the content on those one trillion websites and have a lawyer determine whether it might defame somebody would essentially mean that you couldn't have a search engine.

Bob Garfiled: Lemley gets that, but he also represents two former Yale law students, Brittan Heller and Heide Iravani, who were repeatedly viciously targeted by anonymous online critics on a law school admissions discussion board called

The women were falsely accused of everything from sexual impropriety to heroin addiction to cheating and were subject to lascivious speculation of the most graphic and sometimes violent kind by dozens of unknown attackers.

David Margolick wrote about the case in this month’s Portfolio Magazine.

David Margolick: In Brittan Heller’s case, somebody who knew her as an undergraduate posted something anonymously saying, hey, Yalies, Brittan Heller is gonna be in your entering class. Watch out for her.

Heide Iravani got involved because one of her classmates posted a picture of her and started commenting on her breast size, and then everybody starts jumping and pouncing in and contributing to the degeneration. It became a kind of cyber free-for-all.

Bob Garfield: With consequences beyond humiliation. Heller says she was turned down by the first 16 law firms she approached for job interviews because, she was certain, Google searches returned results from AutoAdmit besmirching her every which way.

And here’s where it gets ironic. Two law students victimized on a website for law students found themselves stymied by – the law. Heller asked AutoAdmit to remove the offensive postings but the proprietors refused, citing the First Amendment.

The women asked Google to take down the defamatory posts from its search results but Google also refused, citing federal law. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Web entities cannot be held responsible for defamation or libel perpetrated by users. Lawyer, Mark Lemley.

Mark Lemley: That immunity provision doesn't have a counterpart in the physical world. It was created, I think, because of one of the significant differences between the Internet and the physical world, which is the sheer volume of information that can be posted on these electronic equivalents of bulletin boards.