Citing concerns about student safety, Tennessee State University last week began blocking the gossip Web site JuicyCampus from its campus network, and appears to be the first public college or university to do so.
At least one private institution, Hampton University, has also blocked the site, where users anonymously post insulting messages about their peers.
JuicyCampus has stirred controversy across the country as it continues to expand to new campuses (it has now set up discussion forums for 500 institutions, though the site has no affiliations with the colleges).
While online chat rooms have been around for years, JuicyCampus seems to have developed a volatile new formula, mixing a focus on individual campuses, a guarantee of anonymity for participants, and an encouragement of salacious speech (The Chronicle, March 28). Students often post insulting messages about their peers' sexual behavior, sexual orientation, and character.
Officials at Tennessee State say this is the first time they have blocked any Web site.
Michael A. Freeman, vice president for student affairs at the university, said he decided to block JuicyCampus out of concern for the safety of students. He said a parent had called him and complained that comments about her child on the site made her fear for the child's safety.
"We live in a post-Virginia Tech environment," Mr. Freeman said in an interview. "We need to be more thoughtful, and we really need to be more careful in targeting and attacking each other."
He added that "what some people may perceive as harmless gossip or poking fun could result in someone being attacked."
He would not describe the material that the parent had complained about, except to say that it "targeted" a specific student.
Mr. Freeman wrote an open letter to students that was published in the university's student newspaper, the Meter. "For our students to talk so openly and graphically, disparaging one another, brings shame and dishonor to this institution," he wrote. "A JuicyCampus gossip blog does not fit with the legacy, spirit, and reputation of Tennessee State University."
A Free-Speech Argument
Matt Ivester, the founder of JuicyCampus, issued a statement on Wednesday likening Tennessee State's action to China's censorship of its online networks.
He said he believed the university was violating students' first-amendment rights to free speech.
"We are actually considering our legal options and investigating that right now," Mr. Ivester said in an interview.
He dismissed Mr. Freeman's concern about campus safety. "That is such a slippery slope to go down," Mr. Ivester said. "There are all kinds of things we could couch in the bubble of campus safety, but it is at the expense of our liberties."
Mr. Freeman, meanwhile, called Mr. Ivester's First Amendment concerns "nonsense."
"Tennessee State University's network is not a public forum," he said. "The network is built and supported specifically for educational purposes."
Officials at the university pointed to a 2003 Supreme Court decision, United States v. American Library Association, in which the court upheld a law that requires public libraries to filter out pornographic Web sites. Libraries had challenged the law as a violation of the First Amendment.
"I have nothing against this site—it's a free country," said Mr. Freeman about Mr. Ivester's site. "But Tennessee State University doesn't have to host his business."
Action Provokes Interest
The initial result of blocking the site on the campus was that more students rushed to visit the site, Mr. Freeman acknowledged.
"Very few students knew of it, so there was a curiosity effect," he said. But he said that the university plans to continue blocking the site, and that he hopes that interest in the site soon dies down.
Officials at Hampton University, in Virginia, confirmed that the institution is blocking JuicyCampus as well, though they referred questions to Teresa Walker, assistant provost for technology and director of academic technology, who was not available on Wednesday.
Both Tennessee State and Hampton are historically black universities.
Meanwhile, earlier this month a student at the University of Delaware filed a federal lawsuit against several individuals who posted comments about her on JuicyCampus. She does not know who those individuals are, since all postings on JuicyCampus are anonymous, so the defendants are referred to in court documents as John Does 1 through 5.
The lawsuit claims that the anonymous plaintiff suffered "significant psychological and economic injuries," and that the defendants knew their statements on the site were harmful and false. The comments called Jane Doe one of the "biggest sluts" on the campus and said she had "laid up" with three different men on one night.
Mr. Ivester said that the Delaware lawsuit does not name JuicyCampus as a defendant, and "we haven't received any papers" concerning the case. He would not comment further on the case.