In the wake of the Virginia Tech atrocity, a student at UC Berkeley's law school anonymously made a comment on a discussion board about a copycat shooting that was construed as a serious threat to the safety of the UC Hastings population. The Berkeley law student has been been identified by the FBI and the blogosphere consensus is that this law student's future career as an attorney has ended before it even began.
There are quite obviously serious privacy issues surrounding the use of the internet and the amount of personal information that is available on the internet and whether this information can be used against an individual. As law students, we're constantly warned about the dangers of misusing forums like Myspace. The general concern is that a potential employer will search Myspace and make their hiring decision based on what they see on a student's personal profile. Now there is talk that the comments made generally in the blogosphere and on discussion boards might be used by the state bar character and fitness committee in determining whether an applicant has the requisite moral apptitude. The Legal Ethics Forum defined the basis for denying admission as follows:
The basis for denying any applicant on character and fitness grounds is a prediction, on the basis of the applicant's past conduct, that the applicant will be unable to comply with the rules governing the legal profession. It's true that the statutory character and fitness requirements make reference to vague concepts like "good moral character," but these have pretty uniformly been interpreted as including a germaneness requirement -- i.e. that any deficiencies in the applicant's character are likely to manifest themselves as an inability to comply with the bar's rules of professional conduct.
On the Legal Profession Blog, I asked whether the Berkeley law student responsible for the threat against Hastings could somehow redeem his/her moral standing, and this is what Alan Childress said:
My own assessment is that this is very unlikely, in the current climate, at least without some massive rehabilitation and time delay before the character process is invoked (and even then...). Bar examiners simply do not hold applicants to the same standards that their state bars do in disciplining (or not) an already-licensed lawyer. ***
***And I do recognize that, to his or her credit, the student came forward and fessed up -- and that some will say that this message by one "Trustafarian" was patently offensive but not a serious threat (the latter as another commenter does). Still, the school in fact evacuated. I doubt the C&F screeners will take seriously the student's own statements of intent and instead will use an objective test of how the message was perceived. If it had been ignored by Hastings (unlikely in the post-VT world and the scathing criticisms of its administration), maybe it would not be treated as a threat. But it was and, I think, that characterization is etched in stone and will not dissipate with time.
It was an awful lapse of judgment and maybe even worse -- I do not know -- but there is something sad if the reality is that some immature kid has thrown his or her life away with just one thoughtless comment on an "anonymous" message board. I have written before, in the context of "permanent disbarment," about the power of redemption and the need not to quit on people too soon. John Dean learned from Watergate, I noted. Travis's question left me, without knowing any more about the other facts and character surrounding "Trustafarian's" life, feeling sad.
I think my sadness is in part that I doubt that the bar examiners will really evaluate all the other stuff, good or bad, and that this foolish or awful prank (or serious threat) will stand alone as sufficient to mean this person can never be a lawyer. Even if he or she has learned more morality and consequences from this situation, in two days, than many lawyers learn in a lifetime. To me, that is not at all the saddest thing that happened this week, but it is sad and societally wasteful. More collateral damage.
***The above text was edited.***
We should all take this as a lesson and keep it in mind when we're using the internet. However, according to the chatter on the blogosphere and the internet, there are still a number of lawyers-to-be that don't get it. A number of them believe that anonymity is technologically possible and can be maintained. Childress also addresses this point:
As for Jeff's excellent point that lawyers-to-be need to process now that lawyer accountability, at odds with anonymity, is "just about 24/7," I would add that their confidence in anonymity is an unbelievable illusion worthy of The Matrix. They stake their careers and non-incarceration on anonymity? Several of the messages confidently explain the technology to make a truly anonymous post (and threat). Even if that is technologically true (and I still call Naive on it), it is foolish to think that the way secrets get revealed in this country is all about technology. Everyone but me already knew who "Trustafarian" was, in his community, and they did not have to run some IP search to authenticate him. Joe Klein was outed for writing [the great book] Primary Colors by a lowly English professor running a program matching phrases Joe liked to use from time to time. Unabomber was fingered by his brother after the manifesto was published. The truly frightening part about 1984 was not the TV set that watched its watchers--it was the neighbors. I simply cannot believe that these aspiring lawyers, whatever the merits of their personalities and culture, readily hinge their entire lives on the hubris of technological cloaks and assume away community daggers.
Note to aspring lawyers re the C&F process: accountability is "just about 24/7." And please write everything you post or email as if it is a postcard addressed to the bar with your name in Sharpie instead of the Wish You Were Here part.
Don't be foolish, folks, be careful what you say in public forums. I also suggest checking out Disclosure Obligations In Bar Admissions.
[UPDATE: The title of this post was changed after it was brought to my attention that someone may find it offensive.]