Students fight back against gossip site

Students fight back against gossip site

By JUSTIN POPE, AP Education Writer
Sun Feb 17, 2008 2:09 PM ET

The Cornell University junior was in his dorm between classes when
the text message came in from a friend. Check out JuicyCampus.com, it
said.

The student found his name on the Web site beside a rambling, filthy
passage about his sexual exploits, posted by an anonymous student on
campus. The young man could only hope the commentary was so ridiculous
nobody would believe it.

"I thought, `Is this going to affect my job employment? Is this
going to make people on campus look at me? Are people going to talk
about me behind my back?" said the student, who asked not to be
identified. He also wondered about his 11-year-old sister, who is
spending more time on the Internet. "What if she Googles me? What will
she think about her big brother?" he said.

JuicyCampus’ endless threads of anonymous innuendo have been a
popular Web destination on the seven college campuses where the site
launched last fall, including Duke, UCLA and Loyola Marymount. It
recently expanded to 50 more, and many of the postings show they’ve
been viewed hundreds and even thousands of times.

But JuicyCampus has proved so poisonous there are signs of a backlash.

In campus debates over Internet freedom, students normally take the
side of openness and access. This time, however, student leaders,
newspaper editorials and posters on the site are fighting back — with
some even asking administrators to ban JuicyCampus. It’s a kind of plea
to save the students, or at least their reputations, from themselves.

"It is an expression from our student body that we don’t want this
junk in our community," said Andy Canales, leader of the student
government at Pepperdine, which recently voted 23-5 to ask for a ban.

The vote came after a long and emotional debate on the limits of
free speech, and was swayed by stories from students such as Haley
Frazier, a junior residential adviser. She had recently come across a
teary transfer student who had been humiliated on the site barely a
week after arriving on campus.

"I can’t imagine the disgust she must have for Pepperdine if that’s what (students) say," Frazier said.

College administrators say they are appalled by the site but have no
control over it since students can see it outside the campus computer
network. They say all they can do is urge students not to post items or
troll for malicious gossip — and hope that in the process they learn
about how to get along.

That tactic may be having an effect.

At a number of campuses where JuicyCampus was a hot topic even just
a few weeks ago, students and administrators say use and complaints
have tapered off sharply. That’s hard to confirm; Internet tracker
comScore Inc. says the site’s visitor numbers are too low to be counted
by its system.

But more and more postings criticize the site, with comments like,
"let’s not ruin each other’s lives," and, "If you can’t personalize any
of the stuff you read or write here, imagine it happening to your
sister or your best friend."

"People have gotten just extremely sick of hearing all this stuff,"
said Rachelle Palisoc, a freshman at Loyola Marymount in California,
who joined a Facebook group called "Ban Juicycampus!!!!" that has about
850 members.

Free to use and supported by advertising, JuicyCampus is a simple
conduit urging users to post gossip and promising them total anonymity.
There are threads on campus hook-ups, who’s popular and who’s
overweight.

"Top ten freshman sluts" reads one typical thread, and "The Jews
ruin this school" another. Homophobia is common. Many 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.

JuicyCampus pledges that it blocks its discussion boards from being
indexed by search sites like Google, and that appears to be true.

"College students are clever and fun-loving, and we wanted to create
a place where they could share their stories," said Matt Ivester, the
site’s founder, who agreed to answer questions by e-mail.

"Like anything that is even remotely controversial, there are
always people who demand censorship," he said in response to calls he
has rejected — including one from his alma mater, Duke — for him to
shut down the site. "However, we believe that JuicyCampus can have a
really positive impact on college campuses, as a place for both
entertainment and free expression. Frankly, we’re surprised that any
college administration would be against the free exchange of ideas."

Duke’s vice president for student affairs, Larry Moneta, said
the school asked Ivester to consider "moderating the venom or at least
moderating the opportunity for venom." However, "my sense is that’s not
that person’s interest," Moneta said.

Under U.S. law, sites like JuicyCampus generally bear no
responsibility for what their users post, said George Washington
University law professor Daniel Solove, author of the recent book "The
Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet."

But Solove believes Congress and the courts have gone overboard
protecting such sites. It’s one thing to protect the owner of a Web
site when someone posts a defamatory message unbeknownst to the
operator. But Solove says sites like JuicyCampus exist solely to
propagate gossip and should be held to a different standard.

In fact, JuicyCampus seems designed to shield its users from
the threat of libel claims. 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. That is unlike
mainstream social networking sites, which do maintain such detailed
logs.

JuicyCampus also goes further by directing posters to free
online services that cloak IP addresses. "Just do a quick search on
Google and find one you like," JuicyCampus advises.

The site’s companion blog reminds users that "our terms and
conditions require users to agree not to post anything that is
defamatory, libelous, etc." But a few paragraphs later, the blog
implies that it will rebuff anything short of a public safety query:
"If your school calls upset about some girl being called a slut, we’re
not handing over access to our server data. If the LAPD calls telling
us there is a shooting threat, you better believe we’re gonna help them
…"

Fraternity and sorority leaders and student governments are
mainly urging students to sap the site of advertisers by turning a
blind eye.

"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 last week.

The concerns extend beyond hurt feelings. At Loyola Marymount,
a now-former student was arrested after allegedly posting a threat of a
campus shooting spree on JuicyCampus. And the dangers of social network
bullying were highlighted by the recent death of a 13-year-old suburban
St. Louis girl who committed suicide after receiving cruel messages on
her MySpace page — messages that turned out to be a hoax.

Pepperdine spokesman Jerry Derloshon said the school applauds
the student government’s reaction, though Pepperdine has not banned the
site.

"In the end," he said, "the site’s shock value will diminish and it will be revealed for what it is: empty."

 

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