Challenge To Reputation Defender
by Jarret Cohen on behalf of AutoAdmit
I now have confirmation that Michael Fertik and Ross Chanin of Reputation Defender are more interested in defending their own reputation than those of their (mostly pro-bono) clients. Read this and judge for yourself.
On March 13, Reputation Defender finally made their first attempt to talk to AutoAdmit when they arranged a phone conference via e-mail correspondence. They will deny this, because it’s absolutely inexcusable that they would take over a month to approach me. But this was truly their first attempt to engage me in any dialogue, after enjoying a week-long media circus and several weeks more of behind the scenes work to "take me down” before I ever even heard of them. (They admitted in their phone conversation with me last night that they had been first hired onto this case by a student in late January).
When I finally did talk to them over the phone yesterday, they would not tell me what threads they wanted me to take down, so you can imagine what a bizarre conversation it was:
"Take the threads down. You’ll be leaders and pioneers, and we’ll commend you and give you speaking engagements."
"What threads specifically do you want me to take down?"
"We can't tell you that without our clients' permission."
"Who are your clients?"
"We can't tell you."
"Okay, but if you're saying their reputations are being tarnished publicly, wouldn't it already be public record who they are?”
“Just agree to take the threads down.”
The conversation went in a circle, and nowhere. They were so dodgy, and vague, and kept urging me to think about the future and not the past, but I just wanted to know things—like, why did you contact the law deans before even contacting me? Or, were you the people who contacted Google Adsense and my server company? Or, why didn’t you make any effort to initiate dialogue with me for over a month? They didn’t even admit that they contacted bloggers to spread word of the frenzy until I called them out on it.
I was genuinely interested in talking to these people and in having a real conversation, and to resolve the trust issue between us and the original issues that precipitated this. I repeatedly expressed the fact that I wanted the talks to go somewhere. At some point, they even vaguely mentioned cash incentives, but I explained to them that it wasn’t about money to me. That, and the fact that they decided to engage us now, after weeks and weeks of silence, just told me that they were running out of ideas.
Instead, I told them that I would remove all the content about the “yet to be named” individuals if we could just first issue a joint statement acknowledging that mistakes were made by AutoAdmit as well as by Reputation Defender.
Amazingly, Reputation Defender refused!
I offered them everything their clients wanted, and they turned it down.
I tried to convince them to move forward with this for a half an hour, but they wouldn't budge. So, no progress was made, and the content remains accessible. Rather than admit partial culpability for the fiasco jointly with AutoAdmit, which would be the brave and honest thing for both parties to do, Reputation Defender made it clear that they would rather leave an issue unresolved and their clients hanging high and dry for the sake of saving face. At that point, I became convinced that Reputation Defender does not have its clients' best interests in mind.
Contrary to the perception that's been created in the media, I have made plenty of efforts in the past to accommodate personal requests like the ones at hand. I have never believed that my website should be a safe harbor for character assassination or to promote the harassment of private individuals, and I am not getting credit for the fact that even though some content remains, much of it has been quietly removed over the years.
Malice has never been part of my vision for free expression or the “marketplace of ideas” that I wanted to foster on AutoAdmit, which I originally described in a letter to law professor Eugene Volokh years ago. My letter endorsed the freedom to discuss controversial topics, but it was clearly not an endorsement of intrusion into people’s private lives.
Unfortunately, my words were quoted and portrayed in a very different context in the Washington Post article. When I gave the interview to the Washington Post, I did not realize that the article was going to be focused so heavily on the subject of “cyber-harassment.” I thought we were just going through another public uproar about “those vile law students acting like yahoos” on AutoAdmit, which just happened to have been instigated this time by the AutoAdmit threads that discussed the unaffiliated “T 14 Talent” website.
In fact, I have helped many people in the past when they have contacted me in a professional manner. However, Reputation Defender's actions raised the stakes by making this personal and turning it into an open war, and now I feel I'm forced to clarify the issues to the public before taking any action. Essentially, Reputation Defender is the reason this has yet to be resolved.
Here is AutoAdmit’s “Challenge to Reputation Defender.” If Reputation Defender and its clients want the threads removed, Reputation Defender should acknowledge these points together with me, and we can all move on. It doesn't cost anyone anything to acknowledge some facts, and I'm sure their clients would agree that it's a small price to pay for a resolution:
A) Reputation Defender acknowledges that by failing to make any effort to engage me for nearly a month and a half until March 13, even though they had been retained by at least one student (pro-bono) since late January, they allowed the issue to escalate rather than seriously endeavoring to defuse it.
B) Reputation Defender acknowledges that instead of making an effort to engage me, they contacted Google Adsense, my server company, law deans, bloggers, and others over a period of a month, which has only made me far less willing to do anything to help give them a “feather in their cap” or to work with the people who would like to have their content removed.
C) Reputation Defender acknowledges it had a lapse in judgment by openly antagonizing the AutoAdmit community with its "Challenge to AutoAdmit.com" webpage and its publicity hounding and media appearances, rather than ever attempting to engage me and quietly work with me to resolve the issue for over a month. This provoked an extremist, whom Mr. Ciolli and I have condemned but whose private actions elsewhere on the Internet I cannot control, to dig up more damaging information on one of Reputation Defender’s clients and forward it to the entire Yale faculty. Note that nearly everyone on AutoAdmit discouraged the person from doing this. By opting to wage an open war against a community of die-hards in order to generate publicity, Reputation Defender put its clients’ interests in jeopardy and essentially caused their client to suffer more irreparable damage and distress.
D) Reputation Defender acknowledges that the first correspondence between AutoAdmit and Reputation Defender was on March 2, when AutoAdmit initiated contact with Reputation Defender to inform them that while AutoAdmit was in no way connected to the “T 14 Talent” website, Mr. Ciolli had in fact been able to convince the owner of the website to shut it down on March 1.
Ironically, this good-will effort was made before AutoAdmit ever even
heard of Reputation Defender. This organization appeared on our radar only after
the Penn Dean’s office informed Mr. Ciolli on March 2 that Reputation Defender
was contacting law deans and spreading the impression that we somehow had
control over the “T 14 Talent” website.
It was also on March 2 that we were contacted by the
E) Reputation Defender acknowledges that Mr. Ciolli has never had the authority to make any editorial or policy decisions relating to the AutoAdmit message board without my explicit approval, and that Reputation Defender was wrong to portray Mr. Ciolli as a decision maker after being made aware of this fact, including but not limited to its correspondence with law deans and on its campaign website. Reputation Defender further acknowledges that Mr. Ciolli resigned from AutoAdmit on March 12 and no longer has any equity or other stake in the AutoAdmit message board.
F) I will acknowledge that I have not paid a lot of attention to the message board, and that that is partly to blame for this fiasco. Maintaining the message board is not my occupation. (Neither is insurance sales, but that’s another discussion.) AutoAdmit is largely a domain for its inhabitants to make into the environment they desire. Until a couple of days ago, I hadn't checked my autoadmit.com e-mail for months. I had not received or dealt with e-mails particularly from one of the people involved in this dispute. When I heard about the "T 14 Talent” controversy via Mr. Ciolli, it just struck me as more of the kind of juvenile garbage that I’ve found myself rolling my eyes at hundreds of time before. And you know what? It was. But that doesn’t mean it was hurtful, or that it didn’t warrant action. When Mr. Ciolli was able to convince the person who ran the website to shut it down, we felt we were only doing good. None of this is to say that I don’t regret that I was unresponsive to the requests of at least one person who became unwillingly involved in the mess, or that she didn’t deserve for her request to be heeded after asking me politely, which she did. I will acknowledge that this was my mistake and sincerely apologize to the affected individual.
G) Reputation Defender acknowledges that AutoAdmit had already been in the process of developing optional moderation capabilities which would hide "dirty" threads from Google indexing before Reputation Defender ever stepped into the picture.
Reputation Defender and AutoAdmit will agree on the following course of action:
1) Reputation Defender will publicly state that it acknowledges points A through G and will stop antagonizing the AutoAdmit community by taking down the "Challenge to AutoAdmit.com" website.
2) I will resume removing specific threads for individuals who contact me directly and ASK NICELY, without threatening litigation, subject to my discretion as always. I will make more of an effort to check my e-mail and not let people slip through the cracks. This, of course, means I will begin with the individuals at hand.
3) Specifically, I will remove threads on Brittan Heller if she apologizes to me (in private) for hinting that she would resort to litigation in her very first e-mail to me two years ago, and later enlisting Professor Brian Leiter of University of Texas Law School (more about Brian Leiter) to wage a failed harassment and defamation campaign against me and Anthony Ciolli on her behalf. This is the main reason this has dragged on for two years, Ms. Heller, and I'm sorry that it wasn't resolved before you resorted to working against me by proxy.
4) Reputation Defender and AutoAdmit will publicly state that they consider their spat resolved and will jointly ask all communities to cease escalations.
5) I will make a commitment to the Yale community and to the entire academic community that the AutoAdmit website will soon begin to transform into an even better resource for current and prospective students. I will continue to implement the improvements to the AutoAdmit website that I was already in the process of developing, which should significantly reduce future complaints. This is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
I will not deal with a middleman “advocacy” group like Reputation Defender ever again. Judging from the irreparable damage that was incurred by one of its clients as a result of its “pro-bono” campaign, the media exploitation and fallout, and its attempts to create an environment of personal and professional pressure on me and Mr. Ciolli, it’s clear to me that an organization like Reputation Defender causes much more nuclear fallout for everyone than there ever would be in the first place.
My question is this: If Reputation Defender has its clients' best interests as its top priority, then wouldn’t Reputation Defender have wanted to take the most obvious, direct and potentially expeditious route toward achieving its ostensible goals for its clients: making an effort to engage us quickly, personally, and quietly, rather than trying to irritate me and avoiding me for over a month? Also, wouldn't Reputation Defender have been willing to work with me a little bit to accommodate my relatively simple needs? Ethically, are not Michael Fertik and Ross Chanin obligated to bounce the offer off their clients to see whether it is palatable to them? Does it cost Reputation Defender any money to agree to a few points that they know accurately portray the facts, or is Reputation Defender more concerned about its own reputation and its own future business prospects than its clients? Also, if Reputation Defender offered to perform pro bono services for the yet to be named individuals, is there any doubt that Reputation Defender has a significant interest in stirring up and sustaining a national media frenzy over this, even appearing on Good Morning America?
Think beyond the surface about what went on. Beware of this organization. For two guys with legal training from the very best schools and a background in speech-writing, their strategic thinking, diplomacy, crisis management, and negotiation skills are an embarrassment.
Everyone makes mistakes. I have made mistakes, and so has Reputation Defender, and their company can very gracefully survive this if its officers just decide to act as reasonable human beings and admit to some judgment errors like I am willing to do. Reputation Defender can say anything they want on their website, but I will not negotiate with them anymore, and if they don’t clearly concede each and every one of the outlined facts, we can all continue to hate each other and get nowhere. At this point, it’s all or nothing; my offer is on the table, and I think it’s reasonable.
I hope Michael Fertik and Ross Chanin choose to make peace, because I don’t want these girls to have to suffer through this anymore because of a male ego contest. The truth is, it’s not Mr. Fertik’s or Mr. Chanin’s choice: it’s their clients’. Once again, I would have helped at least one of these girls earlier if Reputation Defender had made any genuine effort to get in touch with me. But let Reputation Defender file a frivolous lawsuit against me if they want to exploit this for even more media attention. At least I know I haven’t done anything tortious or deliberately unethical.