JuicyCampus.com is a website focusing on gossip, rumors, and rants related to colleges and universities in the United States, according to its Wikipedia page.
The site describes itself, somewhat high-mindedly, as an enabler of “online anonymous free speech on college campuses” and “as a place for both entertainment and free expression.” Through various services such as offering access to anonymous IP servers, it allows users to post messages and comments anonymously and supposedly without possibility of identification. Readers can also vote on which posts they find “juciest” or
most provocative. There is no registration process – anyone may post and anyone may read the posts. Set up in August 2007, the site now contains message boards relating to around 60 U.S. colleges and universities, and growing. As its crows on its website “We are SOOO popular!”.
The JuicyCampus founder and main proprietor, 2005 Duke University alum Matt Ivester, claims he conceived of the forum as a place where students could gossip without fear of
consequence from peers or administrators, but he never expected the site’s content to turn so nasty.
“It’s a gossip site and we never said that it’s not. I guess we didn’t realize how mean some people can be.” Mr. Ivester intones piously in an interview with the Yale Daily News.
JuicyCampus, doubtless owing to its vast commercial potential, is now owned by Lime Blue, a Nevada state limited liability company.
While many are usual run-of-the-mill juvenile rantings, postings on JuicyCampus.com does include rude references to the physical characteristics, race, ethnicity, sexual preferences and shenanigans of students and even faculty. Lately it has been downright vicious, prompting a backlash from student and school administrators. It is also under investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General for violating state laws.
A quick look (o.k., I admit I took more than a quick peek, the subject matter being so compelling) into the website shows just how nasty the contents are. A recent post from Virginia Tech simply says, “NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER”. A Texas A & M stude admits “I fuck sheep in the ass”. A post from Harvard bears the heading “I fucked my friend’s girlfriend”. And these are the milder postings.
Disturbingly, women, some of whom are named, are routinely described as skanks, sluts or worse. A typical thread introduces us to the “Top ten freshman sluts”.
The guarantee of anonymity makes this all possible. And what makes this mix so potent, as pointed out in an AP article, is that these postings combine the cruelty of a middle school playground, the tight social dynamics of a college campus and the alarming global reach of the internet. And the sad experience of those who have been besmirched on JuicyCampus can be traumatic and lasting, affecting not just reputations but possible future job prospects and relationships. One’s electronic footprints can theoretically remain in cyberspace forever. A typical story was narrated by Gregory Wolfe of the Cornell Daily Sun:
The other night, I was approached by a girl I know well enough to hold a 10 minute conversation with but not much more. Three minutes into our 10, and completely unprovoked, she told me that she had been labeled as one of the Biggest Sluts at Cornell on Juicy. Desperately, she tried to defend her reputation to me, to someone who hardly knows her. Unfortunately, once the information is out there, it’s out there. For nothing but a few cheap laughs by the anonymous authors of the post, this poor girl’s character has been irrevocably damaged to the point where she feels compelled to defend herself to a mere acquaintance.
JuicyCampus has predictably taken refuge behind the mantle of free speech. Moreover, a California Supreme Court ruling, citing federal law, has held that internet sites cannot be held liable for posting libelous material written by others. Despite reservations about offering blanket legal protection for posting defamatory material written by others, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded that federal law is clear on the subject. As Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the CA SC:
We acknowledge that recognizing broad immunity for defamatory republications on the Internet has some troubling consequences. Until Congress chooses to revise the settled law in this area, however, plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the statement.
While this may offer some protection and comfort to Mr. Ivester and company, schools are refusing to take JuicyCampus’ increasingly vile presence sitting down. Yale University is now looking into various options, including asking JuicyCampus to remove offensive posts, trying to identify and discipline posters of allegedly defamatory or harassing comments, or banning access to the site from on-campus Internet access. In January 2008 the undergraduate student government at Pepperdine University passed a resolution asking for a block on the site. Student governments are urging students to sap the site of advertisers by just refusing to participate. “If we don’t get on there it will die,” said C.J. Slicklen, student government president at Cornell, where students vented at a meeting.
And now New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram has announced that it is the first state to launch a formal investigation into the site for being in violation of the state’s Consumer Fraud Act. JuicyCampus suggests that it doesn’t allow offensive material, but provides no enforcement and no way for users to report or dispute the material. The site reminds users that “our terms and conditions require users to agree not to post anything that is defamatory, libelous, etc.” but this seems to be mere lip service.
In fact, JuicyCampus seems designed to shield its users from the threat of libel claims or being held answerable for their postings. The site’s privacy page notes that it logs the numeric Internet protocol addresses of its users, but does not associate those addresses with specific posts. JuicyCampus also goes further by directing posters to free online services that cloak IP addresses.
Milgram said her office began its investigation last month when a student came forward who had been terrorized by posts on the Web site, which included her name and address. Prosecutors have subpoenaed information on how JuicyCampus is run. “There’s an unbelievable amount of offensive material posted and absolutely no enforcement,” said Atty. Milgram, noting insults about students’ appearance, race and sexual history as “just the tip of the iceberg.”
I went into this at length because its only a matter of time before JuicyCampus, or its clone, will reach our shores. Already there are Philippine variations on the same theme, as shown by a popular website which trashes members of Manila’s so-called “high” society. It was the anonymous messages which were the most vitriolic and full of hate.
How will we react when JuicyCampus finally invades Philippine campuses ? Apart from enforcing existing libel laws (which I have previously written about in this site), and assuming there are ways to lawfully identify the persons behind the posts, my guess is that if we leave it alone, the site will wither in the vine. I agree with the observation of the spokesman for Pepperdine, which applauded the student government’s resolution but did not ban the site on grounds of freedom of speech and expression, who said:
In the end the site’s shock value will diminish and it will be revealed for what it is: empty.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization defending fundamental constitutional rights in U.S. colleges and universities, in a recent post on the JuicyCampus brouhaha, makes some trenchant observations and pretty much advances the same prescription, thus:
However, what makes JuicyCampus.com uniquely meaty discussion for First Amendment geeks like me is that it is actually more complicated then the usual “It’s protected speech, end of story.” That’s because a portion of the content on JuicyCampus is unprotected. As The New York Times reported, there have been several incidents where authorities have been contacted and arrests have been made after students posted death threats and threatened to commit Virginia Tech-style massacres on JuicyCampus. Threats are not protected by the First Amendment, nor have they ever been.
Further, some of the material on JuicyCampus is doubtlessly libelous–and therefore also unprotected speech. If you look at JuicyCampus for just few minutes (if you can stomach the sophomoric — no offense to sophomores reading this) you will see allegations of sexual promiscuity, illegal behavior, and having a “loathsome” (a.k.a. venereal) disease. All of these allegations, if untrue, are libel per se.
So what can or should colleges do to stop this evil plague of vicious internet gossip?
Really, I don’t think they need to do anything. Given the libelous content, I can all but guarantee that JuicyCampus will be sued — and sued quite often. Existing defamation law deals with cases involving “anonymous” online defamation. Simply put, if you defame someone online and cause them actual harm, your internet service provider can be compelled to turn over your name or IP address.
But while all the negative attention and forthcoming lawsuits may indeed put an end to JuicyCampus, let’s not fool ourselves as to what that would mean. If there is a market for nasty online gossip, then even if JuicyCampus is killed, a dozen Juicy-like sites will pop up to take its place, some likely beyond the reach of American law.
So here is the prickly truth: Web 2.0 and the democratization of mass communication does, indeed, have a downside. Websites like JuicyCampus.com are going to exist. In order to live in society where such sites are a fact of life, we have to become more sophisticated information consumers. We are going to have to learn that anonymous postings making outrageous claims on gossip websites should be treated with about the same factual accuracy as “For a good time call Andy” scrawled on a bathroom stall.
People should deal with JuicyCampus by simply ignoring it. Lord knows all of these salacious and condemning news reports on the site are only helping spur its popularity. (I do note with some irony that I am contributing to this, too.)