March 21, 2008
Despite being online for a mere eight months, college gossip site JuicyCampus.com has managed to stir up some serious controversy.
Launched last August by recent Duke University graduate Matt Ivester, JuicyCampus encourages visitors to anonymously post salacious "gossip" about classmates, professors, and administrators, with posts organized by college. (At present, more than 60 schools are represented on the site.) Ivester insists that JuicyCampus is motivated solely by "the simple mission of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses." Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, posts on JuicyCampus skew towards the X-rated end of the free expression spectrum. Even a cursory perusal of the site turns up racist and sexist vitriol of all stripes, occasionally connected to phone numbers and physical addresses; profanity-laced tirades and threats; and the type of crude sexual commentary one normally associates with the bathroom walls of highway truck stops. Although much of the speech on JuicyCampus is just plain nasty, much of it is still protected by the First Amendment. However, certain posts are unlikely to enjoy First Amendment protection, insofar as they represent libelous, defamatory, or truly threatening speech—a subject I'll explore in greater detail below.
Of course, the media has quickly cottoned on to JuicyCampus. No surprise there: college students and lewd gossip makes for a titillating story. Yesterday morning, ABC's Good Morning America ran a segment exploring the controversy surrounding the site—and this is merely the latest media outlet arriving at the scene. A quick Google News search returns over 240 separate articles covering JuicyCampus in the past month alone.
But what are the actual First Amendment issues at stake? And how should students and universities respond to JuicyCampus?
First, it should be emphasized that when the speech on JuicyCampus rises to the level of incitement or "true threat," law enforcement will be able to take action. For example, authorities have traced JuicyCampus comments that threatened or contemplated violence in ways deemed actionable at least twice, according to The New York Times:
In December, Carlos Huerta, a senior at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, posted a message on Juicy Campus alleging that he would start a shooting spree on campus. At the request of the police, Mr. Ivester traced the threat to Mr. Huerta, who was arrested and released without charges.
Authorities can also intercede without Mr. Ivester's cooperation, as occurred last week when a similar message appeared, written by somebody wondering if he could get his classes canceled by starting a shooting spree. The police traced the post to George So, a junior at Colgate University, who was arrested and charged with second-degree aggravated harassment and released on $1,000 bail.
Next, it's crucial to remember that although JuicyCampus claims to serve the interests of "free speech," the First Amendment doesn't protect libel. If students or faculty feel that a particular post on JuicyCampus constitutes actual defamation—i.e., that a demonstrably false statement about them has resulted in actual harm other than mere insult or offense—then they may bring a civil action in court. People have a right to sue for defamation-and false allegations of sexual promiscuity, having a "loathsome" disease, or criminal wrongdoing are legally considered libel per se. (And after spending an uncomfortable half-hour combing through JuicyCampus, I can safely report that some of the statements posted must be false.)
In the United States, libel is a difficult thing to prove, perhaps more so here than anywhere in the world. If the victim in question is a public figure, the standard for libel is almost insurmountable; for a private figure, the wronged party is far more likely to succeed, but he or she still faces significant hurdles to overcome. But eventually, it seems inevitable that litigation will be brought concerning posts on JuicyCampus. It's just a matter of time before people start to sue.
Frankly, litigation may offer the best result for all aggrieved parties, far preferable to the simple (and likely ineffective) censorship of shutting down campus access to a website wholesale. From a free expression standpoint, a judge is infinitely better suited to make determinations about what speech does and does not enjoy First Amendment protection than, say, university administrators. If nothing else, FIRE's work should stand as a testament to the disasters that often result when university administrators are granted the power to choose what speech a student may or may not disseminate or receive. We've seen what a hash universities have made of harassment law; there's absolutely no reason to think they'd be any more competent in adjudicating libel.
Simply blocking access from campus computers to a site is a lousy way to "solve" the JuicyCampus problem. For one thing, any such "block" is painfully easy to get around: all students have to do is leave campus or establish a proxy connection, rendering the block more symbolic than effective. But even if the block were somehow absolute and impenetrable, it's still a bad idea. That's because once a school or student government begins to censor particular sites, it has embarked down a perilous—and likely slippery—path. One may reasonably ask: should campuses filter out any sites? For instance, should they filter out obscene sites? While they arguably have the power to do so, it makes more sense from a policy perspective to put the onus squarely on the individual users—because once site-blocking is introduced, it may be difficult to stop. It seems obvious that Yale, for example, should not block access to sites that insult or defame George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But if not them, what about the school's president? Or the student government president? Or any student? And once one student's site is blocked for insulting another student, how will administrators or student government leaders deal with the next dozen incoming requests to take down insulting sites? (FIRE has seen these useless attempts to "referee" online speech before at the University of Central Florida, where a student was charged with harassment in March 2006 for calling a candidate for student government a "jerk and a fool" on Facebook.com.) It's troubling to think that student governments feel themselves worthy of deciding what content their peers may or may not view online. Indeed, site-blocking is especially inappropriate on a college campus, considering that there are undoubtedly some academic uses for sites like JuicyCampus. (Sociology, anyone?)
None of this is to say I don't sympathize with students who have been hurt by JuicyCampus. I do. And I recognize that being out of college and law school, all of the above is easy for me to say—after all, I'm not worried about anonymous miscreants dragging my name through the digital mud for all to see. But with that said, it is important to recognize two things. First, anonymous internet comments are just that: anonymous internet comments. In the year 2008, American college students, of all people, should possess the unique understanding that what one reads online is not always the whole truth and nothing but, especially when cloaked in anonymity. Second, the urge to censor, when indulged, is often self-defeating. Instead of repressing information, the very fact of censorship often guarantees still more attention to that which one is trying to suppress. For example, at Pepperdine, student leaders found that once passed, a ban only increased the site's notoriety:
Last month, the student government at Pepperdine, in Malibu, California, passed a resolution urging the administration to prohibit access to the site.
"Looking back, it was a mistake," said Austin Maness, a senior who wrote the resolution but now feels that it only increased students' awareness of Juicy Campus. "Curiosity killed the cat," he said, "and everyone started going to the site."
Perhaps the most effective answer to JuicyCampus? Ignore it, as suggested by an article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
The best way to combat Juicy Campus is to just ignore it, according to many campus administrators. Some officials refused to talk to The Chronicle about the site, reasoning that doing so would only give it more publicity and prolong its life.
Mr. Chester, of Pepperdine, argues that interest in the site is already winding down on his campus. "This site is now outrunning its 15 minutes of fame, and I think it's going to die of its own dead weight."
If anything, the site should be used to teach students that the kind of hateful speech posted on the site exists, and that people must rise above it, some administrators say.
That strikes me as the right approach to the vast majority of the nastiness found on JuicyCampus. Call it playground wisdom: paying bullies no mind robs them of their power.
FIRE often argues that if anything, college campuses should be more free than the rest of society, a kind of ultimate "free speech zone." For university administrators and students alike, JuicyCampus tests this idea mightily, but the answer must remain the same: The best response to "bad speech" is more speech, or simply an enlightened silence.