It started as a way to warn prospective law students to read the fine print. The second-year law student known by the Internet handle Rockstar05 founded a blog in February called Thomas M. Cooley Law School Scam, after the school issued a press release proclaiming itself the second-best law school in the country.
The blog’s title aptly summed up how Rockstar05 felt about his school, which has four Michigan campuses and a Florida location on the way. The student used the site to pick apart Cooley’s admission standards, graduate employment record and student retention rate, among other complaints.
“The blog was to serve a strong buyer-beware message to students considering Cooley as an option for law school,” Rockstar05 said in an interview with The National Law Journal that he granted only on condition of anonymity.
Now, Rockstar05 — a 3L who has since transferred — is locked in a court battle with his former law school, which is attempting to publicly unmask and sue him for defamation. The school succeeded in learning his name and including it for a brief while in court documents, before a judge sealed that information. The NLJ did not learn his identity before the information was sealed and contacted him through his attorney.
A court hearing scheduled for Oct. 24 may well decide whether Cooley’s case against Rockstar05 and three other anonymous commenters moves forward.
The suit has generated interest beyond the realm of the “scambloggers” — people who take to the Internet anonymously to urge others to steer clear of a law school. The Washington-based consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen has filed an amicus brief asking the Michigan trial judge to apply the rule established in Dendrite International Inc. v. Doe No. 3 for weighing the First Amendment rights of anonymous Internet commenters against the rights of plaintiffs who seek to unmask them.
“The mere fact that a plaintiff has filed a lawsuit over a particular piece of speech does not create a compelling government interest in taking away the defendant’s anonymity,” said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy. “Setting the bar too low for disclosure would have a chilling effect on free speech. It is especially disconcerting here that a law school is the plaintiff trying to suppress one of its students’ voices.”
There’s plenty at stake for Rockstar05. Cooley still has his transcripts, and he worries that his employment prospects could suffer should his name go public. “Many 3L students do not budget in the time commitments, effort or the emotional investment attributed to being harassed by lawsuits into their normal workload,” he said.
For their part, Cooley administrators insist they are standing up for the school’s reputation in the face of unfair and untrue allegations. Cooley has an outsized target on its back partly because it’s the largest law school in the country with nearly 4,000 students, which increases the odds of some disgruntled students airing their complaints. Supporters counter that the large size of its classes has helped expand the accessibility and diversity of legal education. Critics have also seized on the school’s bottom-tier status on the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, though Cooley tends to be singled out more often than the other 39 unranked law schools on the list.
“The bloggers’ statements damage our reputation because today’s law school applicant looks online for information about the law schools he or she may attend,” said Cooley Associate Dean for Legal Affairs and General Counsel James Thelen. “As a law school that emphasizes professionalism and ethics, we are particularly harmed by false statements that are dishonest.”
Cooley raised the stakes on July 14, when it sued Rockstar05 and the three John Does who posted comments on the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Scam blog. The school filed a parallel defamation suit against the New York law firm Kurzon Strauss (which has since split); the firm was using Internet postings to seek plaintiffs for a class action against the school. Kurzon Strauss filed that action on Aug. 10.
Cooley seeks monetary damages, a retraction of the statements and their removal from the Internet, and a court order barring the defendants from any future defamation against the school.
Rockstar05 said he had never considered the possibility of being sued over the blog, and initially thought someone was playing a prank on him. Once convinced that the suit was real, he posted a message on his blog defending his statements as personal opinions. He then connected with Michigan solo practitioner John Hermann through the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy organization based in San Francisco. Hermann had represented online John Doe clients against recording and movie industry plaintiffs, and is handling Rockstar05′s case pro bono.
That Rockstar05 retained counsel and is fighting back is somewhat unusual; most online John Doe defendants lack the resources to respond and often capitulate to plaintiffs’ demands, said Lyrissa Lidsky, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who is an expert on online anonymity.
“It’s very easy to bring a libel suit against someone when you are criticized, if you have the resources,” she said. “The unmasking of anonymity is often enough to chill the speech.”
Hermann initially spent a week trying to negotiate with Cooley to resolve the suit, but said the law school’s demands were “too onerous.” The school wanted Rockstar05 to retract his statements and turn the blog over to Cooley “to use as counterpropaganda,” Hermann said.
Cooley’s legal team, led by Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone principal Michael Coakley, issued a subpoena seeking information about Rockstar05′s identity from Weebly Inc., the California company that hosts his blog.
Hermann immediately moved to quash the subpoena in Michigan, and received an e-mail from Weebly on Aug. 9 saying that it considered the subpoena dead. However, Coakley obtained a separate subpoena from a California court on Aug. 3, seeking the information from Weebly by Aug. 25. Weebly informed Hermann that he had until Aug. 22 to have the new subpoena quashed. However, a miscommunication between Weebly administrators led the company to disclose Rockstar05′s e-mail address to Cooley’s attorneys on Aug. 17, and the school used that information to cross-reference its computer records to identify him.
“We have actually always been very strongly on the side of our users, but we made a blunder this time around, which we regret and have apologized for,” said Weebly Chief Executive Officer David Rusenko.
A day after the disclosure, Coakley wrote to inform Hermann that Cooley knew the identity of Rockstar05 and that his motion to quash was moot. Coakley added that he would amend Cooley’s complaint to include Rockstar05′s name unless he agreed to a retraction and turned over identifying information about the other three John Does.
Hermann responded that Weebly’s disclosure had been inadvertent and asked Coakley to return the information. Instead, Coakley on Aug. 29 filed an amended complaint against Rockstar05, using his real name. Coakley referred questions about the case to Thelen, who noted that the judge never said that Coakley had acted inappropriately.
Both sides met in court for a hearing on Sept. 7. Hermann argued that the court should limit the use of the information that Weebly had accidentally disclosed. Coakley argued that the matter was moot, since Rockstar05′s identity had already been revealed and Weebly’s disclosure was not inadvertent.
“I don’t think Cooley should hold all his e-mail addresses and be able to go around and see what he has talked to the other people (sic) without coming to the court,” said Ingham County, Mich., Circuit Judge Clinton Canady III, according to a transcript of the hearing. “I think that’s clearly an invasion of his privacy. I don’t think anybody would want that.”
Coakley responded that the law school had no hope of defending itself without access to the identity of the central figure in the case. “We will be defenseless to this kind of defamation if [Hermann] is allowed to sequester that kind of information,” Coakley said.
Canady agreed with Hermann that the disclosure was unintended and ordered the information provided by Weebly turned over to the court and Rockstar05′s name struck from the record. Public Citizen filed its amicus brief on Sept. 20, asking the court to apply the Dendrite rule, which would require Cooley’s lawyers to offer evidence that their defamation claims have merit before the court can compel the identification of Rockstar05. That’s a standard Cooley has yet to meet, according to the amicus brief.
If Cooley has a strong defamation case, it’s likely to come out during the Oct. 24 hearing, Levy said. If not, Rockstar05′s identity probably would stay under wraps and Cooley would face an uphill legal battle. “They’re pushing hard,” he said of Cooley’s legal team. “They’re not giving in. It’s hardball litigation. I’ll put it that way.”
Even if Cooley wins in court, it may well lose the public relations contest, Lidsky said. “Most of these suits are brought, namely, as a symbolic announcement that, ‘Our critics are wrong,’ ” she said. “ But they run the risk of backlash. There’s a chance that people will become a lot more critical of your practices if you sue a disgruntled former student. People might look at it as a David-and-Goliath fight.”
The lawsuit has certainly put a spotlight on Thomas M. Cooley Law School Scam, which was pulling in about 30 hits per day before it was filed. Rockstar05 estimates that traffic shot up 500% in the days after.
Despite the headaches the blog has caused him, he doesn’t regret starting it. “My ultimate advice is to do your research, exercise your right to free speech, continue being critical on matters of public concern, and remember that consumers have a right to access information,” he said.
Karen Sloan can be contacted at email@example.com.