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Gossip and Slander at a Campus Near You

February 8, 2008

In the annals of online discourse, "did you hear about [student]'s nose job?" isn't among the best of what the Internet has to offer. It also isn't the worst. An anonymous Web site that's caught the attention -- and provoked the ire -- of students across the country has already unleashed comments like that one, and much worse, in carefree, unregulated and sometimes vicious discussion threads that have raised privacy concerns and condemnations on several campuses.

On JuicyCampus.com, anyone can post to campus-specific boards with the guarantee that their identities will be protected and their messages left uncensored. At some colleges, the site has caught on -- particularly among campus Greeks. The result is often a barrage of shout-outs, accusations, open threads ("Hottest Frat Boy!?!!") and often, personal attacks, assertions about women's sexual history and even death threats. In the site's FAQ, the creators note: "Facts can be untrue. Opinions can be stupid, or ignorant, or mean-spirited, but they can't be untrue. And we believe everyone is entitled to their opinion."

Officially, the rules forbid defamation and posting copyrighted material, but the line tends to be blurry, and tracking down IP addresses for potential legal action is tricky business. Last year, the AutoAdmit Web site raised similar issues when law students posting to the message board anonymously attacked female classmates, who eventually pursued legal action. Forums at sites that have raised similar issues, such as Daily Jolt, include mechanisms for flagging questionable content. The founders of JuicyCampus, which has no such protections, have not responded to requests for comment.

"AutoAdmit is a site with a similar culture -- numerous pseudonymous and anonymous individuals post comments to it that are defamatory or invasive of privacy. The site promotes such a culture of spreading gossip and rumor, wrapping itself in the vestments of free speech," said Daniel J. Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and the author of The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press, 2007), via e-mail.

"JuicyCampus strikes me as worse, as at least AutoAdmit, despite its culture of crassness, addresses topics other than rumor or gossip."

As in many online venues, JuicyCampus's promises of anonymity tend to attract people looking to kill time, spread gossip or browse through what might be thought of as the collective zeitgeist -- in this case, of a self-selecting subset of the student population. That also means individuals can be singled out by name, usually without consequence for the poster, and that ugly rumors can circulate with little recourse for students to respond. The backlash was strong enough at Pepperdine University last month that its elected Student Government Association passed a resolution, 23-5, urging the administration to ban the site from the campus network.

"[A] lot of students here have been affected by this Web site, and some of the offensive and disgusting sexist posts on there ... did single out individual students, and so there was a pretty large outcry for us to take action," said Andy Canales, the student body president. Jerry Derloshon, the university's public relations and news director, praised the students' decision but noted that the administration hasn't banned the site from campus or pursued legal action. The university has "lodged concerns" with the site, he said, but it would "see how this unfolds in the ensuing weeks."

“That’s not the kind of culture, certainly, Pepperdine University is trying to nurture, encourage, and whatnot, and I think backlash against JuicyCampus.com on the part of Pepperdine students is frankly admirable," Derloshon said. He added: “We’re calling upon [the site's creators] to stand up and be accountable, to the extent they would foster an environment that is demeaning and demoralizing, if not slanderous....”

The student newspaper, The Graphic, acknowledged concerns over the site's content but chastised the resolution. "The role of the Student Government Association is not to dictate what content is appropriate for the rest of the student body, and it is not to give the administration the right to censor what students view online," the editors wrote, adding: "Certainly, our peers are writing horrible and vile things about many people in the Pepperdine community on this site and hiding behind their ability to post anonymously without repercussion."

Whether the site's popularity will last is an open question. JuicyCampus started out at a handful of campuses last year, including Duke University, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, but it recently expanded to well over 50. On Facebook, students opposed to JuicyCampus easily outnumber those who support it (or, in the words of one group, those "indifferent about the continuing existence of JuicyCampus.com"). One group called "BAN JuicyCampus!!!" has over 860 members.

Canales, the Pepperdine student leader, said he thinks the novelty might be waning. "I think it was really popular a couple weeks ago, especially after the student government started having a discussion about what to do regarding this Web site, and I think recently it has died down a little bit, and I think that a lot of people have looked at it and just expressed their discontent and disgust with this kind of Web site," he said.

"I think that there’s just pretty much the same people that keep posting on this Web site, and there [do] seem to be a lot of posts about fraternities and sororities, especially when [it] first started," he added, suggesting that some students in the Greek system were using the site “as an outlet against other fraternities.”

Even among those who use the site, and defend its existence, there appears to be an awareness -- even if expressed only through irony -- of its potential negative effects on some students' reputations. In the Facebook group "Juicy Campus Rocks!," for example, one person wrote gleefully: "Gossip is fun, and harmless too!"

Beyond First Amendment precedent, sites like JuicyCampus are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." That provision has been interpreted by some to grant legal immunity to Web sites that host content posted by others.

In his book, Solove writes: "Unfortunately, courts are interpreting Section 230 so broadly as to provide too much immunity, eliminating the incentive to foster a balance between speech and privacy. The way courts are using Section 230 exalts free speech to the detriment of privacy and reputation. As a result, a host of Web sites have arisen that encourage others to post gossip and rumors as well as to engage in online shaming. These Web sites thrive under Section 230’s broad immunity."

But if the sites themselves are mostly protected from legal action, individuals behind anonymous postings aren't. "Suing those that post the information will be an uphill battle; they are anonymous on the site, so the victim will have to file a lawsuit against the anonymous individual who posted the information and then use subpoenas to find out that person's IP address and then connect it to that person (via a subpoena to the person's ISP)," Solove said.

"In college, students often experiment as they strive to develop their own identities; they often do silly things; they do things they might regret. One example is streaking -- many college students do it, and it's almost a rite of passage at some college campuses. In the past, such things were forgotten. But now, it is so easy to capture everything in a photo or on video. The gossip and rumor that pervades college campuses doesn't fade into obscurity. Instead, it lives on. Gone are the days of innocent experimentation, of being foolhardy without having to suffer permanent regret."

 

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